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Happy 2013 from Mia Marlowe!
Happy 2013 from Mia Marlowe!
Here’s wishing you health, happiness and a few rakes in your life. And speaking of rakes…I’d love to introduce you to Rhys Warrington, the hero in WAKING UP WITH A RAKE! I’ve posted Chapter 3, where our heroine Olivia first meets him. If you’d like to start at the very beginning, pop over to my website for chapters 1 & 2 before you read about how he and Olivia spark against each other like steel on flint.
“For heaven’s sake, poppet, the duke’s new emissary is waiting,” her mother said, hastily tucking a fichu into the neckline of Olivia Symon’s drab bombazine day gown. When Princess Charlotte died, the Symon household had donned full mourning. Black was not Olivia’s best color, and adding more of it so close to her face only served to wash her out completely. “Hurry up, child.”
“I’m not a child.” Olivia pulled out the fichu and let it drop to the floor. The gown was perfectly acceptable without it, especially since she had no bosom of which to speak. Her breasts were the size of carnation blossoms, and rather small carnations at that. It was bad enough she’d been yanked from the hothouse she loved before she’d had time to finish repotting her orchids. Having her mother try to dress her as if she were a china doll was an indignity that danced on her last nerve. “I’m not your poppet either. And I will not hurry just because the Duke of Clarence has sent another of his hounds.”
“Hush.” Her mother put two fingers to Olivia’s lips. “Hounds, indeed. Must you be so vulgar?”
“Well, what would you call it?” A lock of hair had escaped her lacy snood. Olivia tucked it behind her ear to forestall her mother reaching for it. “The duke is using the poor fellow exactly like a hunting dog to flush the quarry from the brush.”
Her mother made a tsking noise. “Your father never should have taught you to shoot.”
“He shouldn’t have taught me to do lots of things.” , Olivia added silently as she headed down the corridor toward the house’s grand main staircase.
“I trust you’ll keep those unladylike accomplishments to yourself.” Beatrice Symon almost had to trot to keep up with Olivia’s strides.
Not that Olivia was in a hurry to meet with the duke’s man. She simply knew she’d have no peace until the interview was over, so she might as well have done with it.
“Don’t fret,” she told her mother. “It doesn’t matter a fig what I say to the man. I could be as dotty as a March hare and it wouldn’t change a thing. The Duke of Clarence isn’t nearly as interested in me as he is in the forty thousand pounds Papa is settling on me.”
“Don’t be silly. He’s a royal duke. What does he need with money?”
“Maybe to pay his debts?” Olivia read every copy of the her father brought home, and according to all reports, the Duke of Clarence—all the royal family, in fact—had amassed mountains of debt. “Perhaps Clarence is merely tired of trying to wrangle funds from Parliament and considers me a tidy little personal bank.”
“It’s gauche to speak of such things.”
The Duke of Clarence had managed to sire ten children on his mistresses, all of whom were received in Society and were granted the surname Fitzclarence. He’d proven his potency. Olivia was the eldest of six daughters, and large families ran on both sides of her pedigree, facts not lost on the royal duke’s advisors, she was sure. Her chances of being fertile were as high as her father’s pockets were deep.
“Now promise me you won’t mention money to the nice gentleman,” her mother demanded as they descended the grand curving staircase together.
Olivia rolled her eyes. “How do you know he’s nice?”
Most gentlemen she’d met hadn’t been at all nice once one scratched beneath the surface of their courtly manners. She didn’t believe, as her mother apparently did, that “blood will out.”
Olivia’s family boasted no blue blood, but her father, Horatio Symon, had returned from India with wealth to rival the most decadent maharajah. Despite being rich enough to buy all the trappings of the Upper Ten Thousand—the expansive country estate, a well-situated Mayfair townhouse, and the latest fashions and buckets of jewels for Olivia, her mother, and sisters—the Symons still weren’t considered “good ton” by the elite.
But in some circles, well-moneyed trumped well-born. More than one heiress had bought herself a title when a land-rich, cash-poor peer decided he’d overlook his bride’s pedigree in favor of her father’s purse.
A royal duke was the largest of all possible noble prizes for a wealthy common girl to bag in the “title hunt.” Her mother would have been horrified to hear her daughter put it that way, but to Olivia’s mind, her dowry was merely the bloody bait. His Highness, the Duke of Clarence, was sniffing about it, trying to decide whether to risk a bite.
If the royal dukes could admit they were on a hymen hunt, why should she not admit what having such an exalted title in the family would do for her siblings?
, Olivia thought with a wry grin.
“Promise me,” her mother repeated. “Let your father handle any discussion of money.”
Olivia sighed. “Very well, Mother, I won’t mention my most obvious charm.”
“Nonsense, child.” Beatrice Symon turned to give her a quick assessing gaze. “You have plenty of charms. You’re perfectly…well, you’re entirely…oh, hang it all, you’re attractive enough for ordinary purposes.”
. Olivia bit her lower lip. Unlike her curvier younger sisters, she was all knees and elbows, too thin for fashion, but she never could seem to add any weight. Her mother complained it was because she spent too much time riding or puttering in the garden like a common servant. But aside from the freedom of being in the saddle, there was nothing Olivia loved more than burying her fingers in rich loamy soil and helping green things grow.
Olivia knew she was no beauty. It was part of how she’d managed to stay unmarried despite her status as a great heiress.
But would it hurt her mother to pretend once in a while that it was possible for a gentleman to become interested in her for herself instead of her father’s fortune? Olivia refused to believe she was destined merely to be some man’s bottomless purse.
Somehow, some way, she’d know love, she decided. If not, she’d just as soon die alone.
Her mother stopped at the parlor threshold.
“You’re not coming?” Olivia asked.
“No, his lordship asked to speak with you in private, and since he’s here on behalf of the duke, I decided it would be perfectly appropriate,” her mother said.
“No doubt if he wants to examine my teeth and check my limbs for soundness, that will be appropriate too,” Olivia muttered.
Her mother puffed up like a guinea on the nest. “Honestly, Olivia, where you get such outlandish notions I’ll never collect. Don’t fret, dear. I’ll be nearby should you need me.”
“Listening at the keyhole, no doubt.”
“Hush, chi—I mean, oh, never mind.” Her mother gave her a little pat on the shoulder. “Remember your sisters are counting on you and, well—” Her mother’s fingers fluttered in a helpless gesture. “Just do your best, dear.”
Olivia stifled a groan. Trust her mother to remind her once again that her sisters’ expectations would catapult skyward if she managed to capture the Duke of Clarence.
And plummet to perdition should she muff this chance of a lifetime.
She pushed through the double doors and swept into the meticulously appointed room. Despite the fact that the Symons were nouveau riche, and her mother had questionable ideas when it came to appropriate situations with strange men, Beatrice Symon did possess excellent taste in home furnishings. The country estate sparkled with elegant understatement rarely found, even among the bon ton.
The man on the settee rose to greet her, and Olivia dipped in the requisite curtsey.
“Good afternoon, my—” She raised her gaze to the man’s face and her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth. The last emissary the Duke of Clarence sent had been a loathsome little toad of a fellow who snickered when he spoke, finishing his sentences with an upward lilt and a nervous giggle.
But this man was…magnificent.
It was more than merely flawless features. It was the balance of the individual parts that created such an arresting whole. His strong jaw matched his firm lips and fine straight nose. The high cheekbones of a man of action were tempered with the broad forehead of a poet.
And his snapping brown eyes. They were dark wells of intelligence and…did she detect a hint of amusement glinting in their depths?
Well, of course she did. The man was looking at her, wasn’t he?
It was rare to see a human face with this kind of symmetry and pleasing proportions. Usually a nose would be outsized for the rest of the features or a person’s eyes would be too wide set. Olivia ordinarily found this sort of perfection in flora, not fauna.
The only bit of him that seemed out of place was a streak of silver marring his seal-brown hair at one temple. Judging from the lack of lines around the man’s eyes and mouth, he was young to have that shock of gray. But even what should have been an impediment to his arresting appearance instead lent him an air of mystery.
“It is my honor to meet you, Miss Symon. Lord Rhys Warrington, your servant,” the man said with a correct bow from the neck. His ramrod straight back proclaimed him no one’s servant, but he followed proper conventions to the last jot and tittle. “Allow me to present this letter of introduction.”
His voice was resonant and deep, with a slightly ragged edge that sanded away at the sharp angles of Olivia’s soul. The sound shivered over her like liquid seduction. She took the gilded envelope from him and broke the wax bearing the Duke of Clarence’s ornate seal. She ran her gaze over the flowery script but found it difficult to focus on the words.
Every time she glanced up, the man was at her.
Granted, the other emissary had given her an unhurried perusal upon their first meeting as well, taking in her slight frame. His lips had pursed in a disdainful expression that declared her unremarkable in the extreme.
But this man’s gaze was focused on her face, not her figure. A faint smile played about his lips that invited her to smile back at him.
Against her better judgment, the corners of her mouth turned up. He bared a set of dazzling teeth in return.
Olivia’s belly fluttered as if she’d swallowed a bee. She’d never been so undone by the mere sight and sound of a man before.
, she told herself crossly. She refolded the letter and tried to stuff it back into the envelope. No matter what she did, the foolscap wouldn’t cooperate despite the fact that it had all fit neatly in there only a few moments before. She finally tossed the whole thing on the tea table in exasperation.
“Please have a seat, my lord, and I’ll ring for refreshments.” Olivia’s hand shook a bit when she gestured toward the settee, so she rang the bell for tea louder than required. She perched opposite him on the blue damask seat of one of the Hepplewhite chairs, folding her hands in her lap to still them.
“That’s not necessary,” Lord Rhys said. “I’m not here to be entertained.”
“It’s no trouble. No doubt you’ll need a spot of tea to revive you once you begin regaling me with the excellencies of His Royal Highness, the Duke of Clarence,” she said, feeling more sure of herself once a maid brought in the tea things and she had something to do with her hands. Olivia was ready for the conversation, and thus the battle was to be enjoined. There was little chance she’d be allowed to say no to the duke’s suit should an actual offer be forthcoming, but she didn’t intend to make things easy for his representative. “Your predecessor waxed long and often over the duke’s…virtues. I feel as if I already know his character well.”
One of his dark brows arched, indicating he caught her hesitation and the unspoken disdain beneath her words. “Extolling His Highness’s…virtues is not my purpose.”
“Oh?” She raised the sterling creamer to offer him milk for his tea, but he shook his head. “But the letter of introduction…”
“While it’s true that I’m here on behalf of the duke’s suit, I’m not here to sing his praises. In truth, that would be a rather short song.”
Olivia nearly dropped the creamer in surprise.
“And as you say,” he went on, “someone else has already done that. No, I’m here to become acquainted with you in the duke’s stead, Miss Symon.”
“Oh.” The other emissary hadn’t asked a single question about her. It was assumed she should be overjoyed with His Royal Highness’s attention and not miss being courted in the usual sense. “Isn’t that something the duke should do for himself?”
“One would think so, wouldn’t one?” Lord Rhys chuckled pleasantly. “However, as I understand it, a royal courtship is almost always accomplished by proxy. I come before you today to stand in his royal shoes, as it were. Thanks to the duke’s previous representative, you know a good deal about him. But I’d wager he knows very little of you.”
danced on her tongue. Remembering her mother crouched at the keyhole, Olivia bit back the words.
“It’s wicked to wager,” she said primly and wished she hadn’t.
His smile was more potent than a pilfered jigger of whisky. “Gambling is the least of my sins, I assure you.”
She added a dollop of cream to her tea, set down the creamer, and stirred furiously. His frank admission shocked her to her toes. And sent a strange little thrill coursing through her belly. To be wicked and willing to admit it. Now, that was an accomplishment. She burned to ask about his greater failings, but her eavesdropping mother would want her to stick to the main topic of conversation.
“What sort of things would the duke like to know about me?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure,” Lord Rhys said. “It’s hard to say what such lofty persons might find of interest. You see, like you, I am technically a commoner. The ‘lord’ affixed to my name is merely a courtesy. My older brother will inherit my father’s marquisate, and I’m left to make my way in the world however I may.”
His openness was surprisingly refreshing. “Such as serving as the duke’s proxy.”
“Have you always been part of the Royal Court?” She knew the Prince Regent liked to surround himself with pretty women, but she doubted he’d suffer such a remarkable male specimen in his entourage.
“Lord, no. That’s for much more exalted folk than I.”
Just when Olivia thought he couldn’t be more appealing, a devastating dimple appeared on his left cheek. But even more than his charming appearance, she liked his self-deprecating directness. A commoner, he’d said.
Just like her.
“Let me hazard a guess then,” she said, surprised to find she’d relaxed enough to enjoy this interview. “As a second son, your options are somewhat limited. You don’t seem the sort to go for the church.”
“One lump, if you please,” he said, though she’d quite forgotten about the tea. “Why do you say that?”
Olivia wished she’d stuffed her handkerchief into her mouth before she allowed such a foolish thing to spill out. She couldn’t very well admit he’d lead his female parishioners into sinful thoughts during each Sunday sermon simply by virtue of his handsome face and deep, whisky voice.
“You don’t seem the scholarly sort,” she said, grasping at any reason but the real one as she dropped a brown lump into his teacup using her mother’s elegantly filigreed tongs.
“Surprisingly enough, I did graduate top of my class, but you’re right about me and the Church,” he admitted. “I have no calling to become a country parson. When all else fails, too many gentlemen in my situation turn to that living without the requisite passion for it, and I would not be one of them.”
Just hearing him say the word “passion” brought a rush of heat to her cheeks. She added two more lumps of sugar before she remembered he’d only asked for one.
“A man of action, then,” she guessed, handing the cup and saucer to him and hoping he wouldn’t notice the additional sweetness. She wasn’t usually so addlepated. What on earth was wrong with her? “You’ve borne arms for the sake of our king, I’ll wager.”
A shadow seemed to pass behind his eyes, but it was gone so quickly Olivia decided she’d imagined it. He leaned forward, elbows balanced on his knees. “I thought you said it was wicked to gamble.”
Olivia knotted her fingers together. “A figure of speech. I didn’t mean anything by it. There is no true wager unless stakes are agreed upon.”
“An important distinction.” He nodded. “I’ll bear that in mind. But you’re right. I was a captain in His Majesty’s forces but have since resigned my commission.”
“Now that we have settled matters with the French, I suppose there was little to keep you thus engaged,” she said, liking him even better for his military service. “And now you meet prospective brides for royal dukes for a living.”
“For the moment, though it should please you to know that I am not being compensated for my service. I…volunteered,” he said. “I don’t wish to shock you, Miss Symon, but I believe honesty is the best foundation for a friendship. Given your abhorrence for gambling, you may despise me for this, but I must admit that I usually do support myself by being lucky at cards.”
Her mother would have had to whip out her smelling salts at such an admission, but Olivia was more struck by his suggestion that they might become friends.
Was it possible that a man and woman could form such an unusual bond? She’d never heard of the like. Men befriended men at their clubs. Women exchanged social visits in their homes. The sexes rarely interacted except for courtship, and then once the wedding took place, it was an extraordinary marriage that could also count itself friendly. Even her mother and father addressed each other as Mr. or Mrs. Symon instead of by their Christian names.
“I’ve heard plenty of cautionary tales about people who’ve squandered their living at cards, but never of anyone who kept body and soul together with it,” she said, anxious to keep this unusual conversation going. “Surely gambling isn’t your sole occupation?”
“Not at all. I also drink and carouse and engage in any number of questionable pursuits,” he said with a crooked grin. Then he took a sip of his over-sweetened tea and the grin became a grimace. “I am, in fact, an incurable rake. A dedicated libertine. You may ask anyone.”
“Since you’ve been so forthright, there’s no need for me to ask, is there?” She ought to have been scandalized, but instead, she was intrigued by his confession. “It’s one thing to be wicked. Another to be unabashedly so. I shall consider myself duly warned of you, sir.”
“Good. You should be.” Something flashed in the depths of his dark eyes that she couldn’t decipher, then it dissolved when another winning smile made the corners of his eyes crinkle. “Now it’s my turn to guess about you.”
“Very well, though I warn you there’s nothing in my life remotely as interesting as being an incurable rake and dedicated libertine.”
As soon as the words were out, she clamped a hand over her mouth. They were unladylike in the extreme. She expected to hear a dull thump on the other side of the door at any moment. If her mother truly was listening at the keyhole, she’d undoubtedly faint dead away.
Lord Rhys merely laughed. “You’ve made my task too easy. I perceive that you, Miss Symon, are a woman of strong opinions and do not hesitate to express them.”
“Guilty as charged.” She buried her nose in her teacup.
“You also have a consuming interest in something that takes you outdoors, even on blustery January days.”
“How could you know that?”
“A charming smattering of freckles on your cheeks,” he said. “Plus, there’s a smudge of dirt on your right sleeve near the elbow. Potting soil?”
“Yes.” She set down her teacup and rubbed vigorously at the offending smudge. So he had looked at more of her than her face, though she hadn’t caught him at it.
“An excellent gardener then,” he said, leaning back and cocking his head at her quizzically. “But I sense your interest runs even deeper than most.”
Did this man have a way to tap into her private thoughts? “Again, you are correct. I love green growing things, but I also study them. I’m fascinated by the way they flourish and by the multitudinous variety of them.”
“What are your favorite types?”
“Orchids,” she said quickly.
“Aren’t they parasitic? You don’t strike me as the type who’d champion an organism that survives by taking from others.”
“While it’s true some orchids thrive anchored to the bark of trees, most merely cling to their host without taking nourishment from it. Rather like a sparrow alighting on a twig, actually,” she said. “There are a few species that are parasitic, but they grow below ground. And I’ve read that they smell like something rotten. Not at all the type I’d choose to cultivate.”
His mouth twitched, and the smile she’d found so engaging no longer reached his eyes. “Very wise of you not to cultivate types who prey on others.”
Olivia had heard that conversations at court were often laced with double meaning, but she couldn’t imagine what cryptic message he might be trying to send with this one.
“Nevertheless, I find raising orchids most agreeable,” she said, taking up her cup and saucer again. It was a very small shield, but she sheltered behind the fine Limoges. Until she figured this man out, it seemed safer.
“I’d imagine so, all that pollinating and germinating and whatnot. And I find it most agreeable that a young lady such as yourself isn’t put off by such close acquaintance with reproduction.” A hint of sin returned to his smile. “Is it true that orchids take their name from the Greek word for a certain part of male anatomy?”
Olivia choked on her surprise.
And her tea.
Lord Rhys was on his feet in a trice, thumping her back and lifting her arms over her head. She sputtered for a good half-minute, then finally caught her breath. Olivia pulled her hands away from him and bent to retrieve the cup and saucer that had landed in a damp puddle on her mother’s Aubusson carpet.
“Thank you, my lord.” Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment. “I’m quite recovered.”
“I can see I’ve shocked you,” he said as he returned to the settee. “Forgive me. I naturally assumed your familiarity with plants and their procreation would cause you to take a liberal view of what constitutes acceptable topics to be discussed between friends.”
“That presupposes that we are friends.”
“Do you think we’re not?” he said, leaning back and hooking an ankle over his knee, clearly at ease. He spread his arms across the back of the settee, filling the space and the room so completely Olivia had difficulty drawing breath. And not just from choking on the tea. “I’d hate for that to be true. I can’t tell you the last time I enjoyed a conversation with a young lady quite so much. Do you find me irksome?”
Despite his inappropriate comments, she couldn’t find him so. She almost wished she did. In addition to the fluttering in her chest, the hair on the back of her neck prickled. If she’d been a wild creature, she didn’t know whether she’d be drawn to him like a moth to flame or run like a hind that catches wind of hunting dogs.
“No, my lord,” she said. “I doubt any lady of your acquaintance finds you irksome.”
“I’m gratified to hear it. In that case, would you do me a favor?”
“If I can.”
“Oh, you can. The question is whether or not you will.”
She shifted on her seat, wishing she could rise, but then he’d have to stand as well. He dominated the room while merely sitting. How much more commanding would he be if she had to crane her neck to peer up at his handsome face? “You’ve made this favor sound rather wicked, my lord.”
“Not at all. It’s just that when you call me ‘my lord’ it seems so stuffy, especially since I don’t truly deserve it,” he said. “I was wondering if you’d consider calling me Rhys instead.”
Olivia couldn’t remain seated after that. She rose and wandered toward the window to put a bit more distance between them. “That’s a rather unusual request.”
The sharp clack of his boots on marble announced that he had followed her. She plopped down in the center of the window seat, trying to claim all the space.
“And here I thought you were a rather unusual girl.” His knowing look dared her to flout convention.
Agreeing to such familiarity was the sort of thing that would turn her mother’s complexion an unhealthy shade of puce.
Of course, that only made the notion harder to resist.
“We would have to make a pact. It could only be when we are alone, you understand,” she said, considering the idea so seriously she wasn’t immediately aware of when he sat down beside her. “And I suppose to be fair I would have to give you leave to call me Olivia as well. But there could be no slips in public.”
“Perhaps we should wager on it in order to insure that we keep the pact,” Lord Rhys said. He wasn’t touching her at all. There was a good inch separating them, but his heat radiated toward her, sending a tingle up her thigh. “The one who uses a Christian name in public owes the other…what?”
“Not money,” she said, forgetting for the moment that she held wagers of any kind to be morally wrong. Besides, she wasn’t likely to call him Rhys unless she was absolutely certain no one was about. If she couldn’t lose, surely it wasn’t really gambling. “My family has buckets of it and you support yourself by the turn of a card, so wagering money doesn’t seem particularly fair.”
“Very well, let us leave it that the offending party would owe one as yet undetermined favor, which we would be honor-bound to fulfill, whatever it is.” He cocked his head slightly. “Do we have an accord?”
“We do.” She nodded, wondering what an undetermined favor from a confessed libertine and incurable rake might entail. If the roiling in her belly was any indication, it promised to be wildly diverting and probably more than a little sinful.
A secret part of her burned with curiosity.
“Well, this has been most enjoyable, ,” he said, caressing her name with his silky baritone. Then he consulted his pocket watch. “I fear I’ve monopolized far too much of your time this afternoon, and a friend shouldn’t impose. I must be going now, but I wonder if I might return on the morrow to continue our discussion.” He closed the pocket watch face with a snap and stowed it away. “Perhaps at that time you might show me your orchids.”
Unlike the duke’s previous representative, this man had made Olivia sorry to see him go, even if he had made her choke on her tea and was sitting too close for her comfort. “Of course, my lo—I mean, Rhys. But my plants aren’t much to see at present, it being wintertime. My work now amounts to merely laying the groundwork for blossoms in the spring.”
“I understand. I’m undertaking a project of a similar nature. One that requires careful planning and strategy so the going may seem slow at first. But one must walk before one runs.” He stood. “Then perhaps instead you might show me over the grounds. The estate here at Barrowdell has many lovely features, I’m told. Do you ride?”
Olivia nodded and rose to her feet. She felt far more at home on the back of a horse than in a parlor exchanging niceties. Especially slightly wicked niceties with a man who didn’t realize the window seat should have only accommodated one.
“Good,” he said. “We can get some fresh air, some exercise, and it will give me a chance to call you by your Christian name without fear of slipping in public.”
“You don’t want to lose the wager.”
“No, I’m counting on you to do that,” he said with a laugh. “Let’s make it early, shall we? Say, eight o’clock?”
“Good. I’m a bit of a lark. An early ride suits me.” She extended a hand to him, palm correctly down. She hadn’t done so at their meeting, but it seemed right now. After all, they were going to be friends. “It would be my honor to show you over Barrowdell.”
“No, the honor is mine.” Rhys Warrington took her hand and instead of bowing over it, he brought it to his lips. He planted a soft kiss at the juncture between her fore and middle fingers. A little thrill zinged up her arm and warmed her belly. His breath feathered over the back of her bare hand, setting every nerve dancing.
It had been a huge mistake not letting her mother dress her after all, she realized. Beatrice Symon never would have forgotten to make sure she donned a pair of gloves. Then she wouldn’t have found herself teetering on a precipice, about to tumble into a pair of brown eyes.
Lord Rhys looked down at Olivia over her knuckles.
“There’s one more thing I’d like to guess about you, if I may,” he said, his voice a rumbling purr.
“What’s that?” she whispered, grateful her voice even worked. A strange warmth pooled between her legs.
“You have no idea how lovely you really are.” He kissed her hand once more and held her with an intense gaze. “Until tomorrow then, my dear Olivia.”
This is only one of thet stops on the Waking Up with a Rake blog tour. Be sure to check out my itinerary and join me along the way. Leave a comment or question to be entered in the random drawing for a copy of Waking Up with a Rake. Good luck!