The Art of Ruining a Rake
Scandalous Spinsters Book 4
The night that started it all
Practiced rake Roman Alexander, Lord Montborne, never meant to seduce his best friend's sister. He certainly never intends to do it again. The reckless scoundrel has never felt more compelled to be a better man. Nevertheless, he can't seem to forget her, or her passionate response to his kisses. How much danger can there be in one more try?
The day that ruined everything
Serious-minded headmistress Miss Lucy Lancester believes her handsome rogue has moved on to his next conquest, leaving her free to cherish their one night together for the rest of her bluestocking days. Until the afternoon he arrives at her school intent on proving their one night wasn't enough—and this time, the scandal can't be contained. Left with few options and no reputation, Lucy turns to the one man she's sworn never to be alone with again. How dangerous can it be to spend her nights in the company of a rake?
If Miss Lucy Lancester’s life were a book, then surely she lived in the last blissful pages where the villain had been vanquished and the world rescued.
The notion brought a smile to her lips as she dipped her quill into an inkwell. Moments later, her signature approved January’s estimated expenses. She proceeded to the next piece of correspondence arranged neatly on her desk. Her position as headmistress of Bath’s School for Accomplished Young Ladies satisfied her. She oversaw the tutelage of twenty-five bright-eyed girls. Her responsibilities extended to the employment of two teachers, a retainer, four maids and a cook. If her school was not profitable, it was solvent. Almost as much as any of that, she adored living in the city.
She raised her attention from her papers only when Mr. Mowry, her man-of-all-work, appeared in her doorway. “Miss Lancester, you have a gentleman caller. Shall I show him in?”READ MORE
“Is it Mr. Strickett?” She set her pen in the standish and began to rise. “I wasn’t expecting him to collect Miss Wilhelmina until tomorrow.” Wilhelmina was the last of her paying girls to retire for the winter holiday. This was good news, indeed. “Perhaps I might leave Bath early, and visit with my sister for an extra day.”
Mr. Mowry shrugged. Such indifference would have been cause for lecture in her brother’s house, but this wasn’t Trestin’s property. It was hers to manage, and she liked the uncomplicated rapport she kept with her staff.
“You take yourself off whenever you like, but I’m afraid it’s not Mr. Strickett what’s in the parlor,” Mr. Mowry said. “The gent gave his name as Lord Montborne.”
She regarded her retainer for several speechless seconds while her heart sped uncontrollably and her hands went to ice. No, she mustn’t have heard him correctly. Roman wouldn’t be here. This was Bath’s School for Accomplished Young Ladies. Her school for accomplished young ladies. Roman wouldn’t go to the trouble required to find her here. Why would he, when he’d never called on her once—not in all the years she’d longed to have his attention?
Mr. Mowry stood straighter. “If you don’t mind my saying, it’s not like you to seem upset, Miss Lancester. I’ll toss him out on his ear. Just give the word.”
If only Mr. Mowry could help her. But no. She was frighteningly alone when it came to Roman’s tumultuous effect on her. While her man-of-all-work might be able to separate them physically, he could never alter what was in her heart. Roman couldn’t be trusted, and she couldn’t be trusted with him. It was one of the reasons she’d come here, to her fairytale land. Roman Alexander required a wide berth.
She curled her nails into her palms. “See him out.” Her voice was embarrassingly faint.
A gleam shone in Mr. Mowry’s eye before he quit her office. He was going to enjoy this, maybe more than was proper.
Her hands shook as she unfolded the next invoice. Work. She must return to her work, and forget any mention of the blue-eyed marquis she’d allowed under her skirts. Once.
Her small office seemed stifling. She pushed back from her desk and stood so abruptly, her chair screeched across the marble floor. She went to the window and flung it open. Bracing both hands upon the sill, she let the crisp winter air wash over her. The busy street bustled below without pause. Wagon drivers and shopkeepers went about, ignorant of the distress occurring above them.
The door to her office snapped open. She spun around. She didn’t need to see the intruder to know it was him. She’d always been too aware of her brother’s best friend. After ten long years of pining for him, she knew the facts better than anyone.
Roman Alexander didn’t belong to her.
Or to any woman.
“Get out,” she ordered tightly, straining to maintain her composure even as she relished the sight of him.
Dear Zeus, he was handsome. In all the years she’d yearned for him, he’d hardly changed. He stood tall and graceful, with narrow hips and broad shoulders. If he could command attention in a London ballroom, he positively crowded the closet she called an office. Nevertheless, it wasn’t his height that drew her attention first. Nor was it his impeccable attire, done in the first stare of fashion. It was the crown of ringlets enshrining his face. Half the men in the ton were wearing blond wigs these days. A ridiculous attempt to emulate a man who simply couldn’t be replicated.
“Tsk, tsk, Miss Lancester,” he said in a voice that brought to mind London drawing rooms and trysts in the dark. “I’ve come all this way to see you and let me inform you, it is not an easy journey. There are god-awful hacks and ill-equipped inns and all manner of tolls to pay. The least you could do is offer me a pretty smile.”
“Get out,” she repeated, feeling her carefully crafted discipline quickly slipping away.
He cocked an eyebrow befitting Adonis. Perfectly sculpted, as blond and arched as if one of the Masters had crafted it. He stood at a rakish angle in her doorway, as indolent as a summer afternoon. A pristinely gloved hand rested on the door’s knob. The other held his walking stick. He flashed her a smile meant to make her insides quiver. “Why, if I didn’t know better, Miss Lancester, I’d think you’ve missed me.”
Zeus, he was arrogant. Enough for ten of the swains who idolized him. “Not in the least. If that is all—”
He took two steps into the room. His black greatcoat whirled as the door slammed closed behind him. “It’s not all, Miss Lancester. I’d say we’ve barely started. Wouldn’t you?”
The door crashed open again. Mr. Mowry burst into the office. His barrel chest heaved as if he’d struggled to keep up with the marquis’ carpet-eating strides. “You are intruding, sir! Remove yourself at once before I am forced to seek out the watchman.”
Roman’s palms curved around the golden head of his walking stick. He cast a bored look over his shoulder. “That will make for an interesting report in the morning papers, Mr. Mowry.”
The retainer looked apprehensively at Lucy, dutifully awaiting her decision. She shook her head in a silent no. Roman was infuriatingly correct. The last thing she desired was for her name to be linked with his. Or worse, for her precious girls’ school to be tied to his infamous reputation.
One of her teachers peered over Mr. Mowry’s shoulder. “Is aught amiss?” Espying Roman, Miss Meriwether’s eyes widened. The modish marquis didn’t fit the mold of men who usually entrusted their daughters to the School for Accomplished Young Ladies.
“Not at all, Miss Meriwether,” Lucy hastened to assure the woman. Perhaps a bit too quickly. It was terrifying to see this man in the same room as her curious staff. No doubt they would wonder at the nature of his business with their usually staid headmistress.
Lucy’s ink-stained fingertips shook only a little as she pointed at him. “Lord Montborne’s estate borders my brother’s in Devon. I was occupied with closing the year’s accounts, but I’ve decided to see him after all. Please, go back to your duties, the both of you.”
Mr. Mowry’s forehead creased with doubt. Miss Meriwether’s face shined with misplaced excitement. And Roman’s leisurely, satisfied grin raised Lucy’s hackles.
“Go on.” She made a shooing motion at her staff. “Close the door behind you.”
Doing so might cause even more gossip than arguing in front of them would have done. But she couldn’t let Roman make clever, needling remarks in front of her employees. She waggled her fingers again. With obvious reluctance, Mr. Mowry exited. As he drew the door shut, Lucy caught Miss Meriwether’s wistful sigh at her last glimpse of the marquis. A more misplaced appreciation couldn’t be named. Roman was a villain, not a hero. A truth Lucy had learned the hard way. Even when she’d hoped for so long he might prove to be…
Well. She wasn’t special to him. He lumped her in with the others. A warm, willing woman, indistinguishable from any other lady who yearned for him.
The moment the door closed completely, Lucy flattened her hands on her desk and leaned forward. She didn’t care why he’d come, only that he left. After the way he’d affronted her, he wasn’t worthy of the rug he stood on, let alone her time. “This is my school,” she warned him in a low, menacing voice. “Remove yourself before I am forced to drastic measures.”
He grinned wolfishly. “Pray, continue with your threat of bodily harm. Anything that brings you closer to me.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” she said through clenched teeth. Only what she might do to him. Bloodshed was no laughing matter. She was far more likely to cause him injury than he seemed to think.
He took a step closer, causing her to flinch. “Then why did you move behind your desk?” He pointed toward her hand. “Are you going to stick me with that letter knife?”
She followed his direction without meaning to. Her heart bounded into her throat at the sight of the slim dagger in her hand. Great Zeus! She uncurled her fingers and let the dull blade drop to her desk.
She didn’t require a weapon to defend herself from that belly-quivering smile.
He closed the remaining distance to her desk and pulled out a brass-studded chair. After dropping into it, he abruptly returned to his feet. “Please be seated, Miss Lancester. I don’t wish to be rude.”
“Insufferable,” she muttered under her breath. He was impossible. Never serious, never thinking he might be in the wrong. The most dangerous kind of man.
He arched that pale brow again. A smirk played on his lips. “Pardon me?”
Her heart still beat too quickly; the cool handle of the blade still felt as real as if she held it in her hand. She enunciated each word clearly, so he couldn’t possibly misunderstand. “I said you’re insufferable.”
“Oh, that’s not very fair now, is it?” He took a sidestep toward her.
She skittered toward the window behind her. Out of reach.
A watch fob glinted at his waistcoat as he advanced again. “You didn’t seem to mind me much before. In fact, you seemed to find me more than just passingly tolerable.”
Her nipples hardened in spite of herself. Her rapid breaths could be attributable to her mortal fear of wounding him, or they might be due to the reminder that yes, she had found him much more than passingly tolerable.
Another step closer. Her bodice squeezed against her lungs. He was doing dangerous things to her insides. Making her stomach sink and her heart soar. She did want to run and throw herself into his arms. That was the problem. She did desire him. She would always desire him. But…
This was the scoundrel who brought her greatest fear to life. He could lie with her. Love her. Then, with an adoring smile, casually admit he had no idea who she was. He was a rake, through and through. If she let him, he’d break her heart.
He wasn’t the one she feared.
From the corner of her eye, Lucy caught the gleam of the letter knife. No. She darted forward and pushed a stack of invoices over the blade. Mother had murdered Papa for not much more reason than this.
Lucy backed up again and pressed her spine against the window. As far away from the dagger—and Roman—as she could get.
“Why did you come?” she demanded, her fingers digging into the wooden window box behind her. She must be strong. Calm.
His blond brows rose as if he couldn’t possibly understand why she might be so uninviting. As if he hadn’t a single memory of what had passed between them during her come-out, or what had occurred after.
Or why she might find it all too easy to plunge that letter knife into his black, black heart.
“Can’t a gentleman pay a call on his best friend’s sister without her reaching for her smelling salts?” Roman spoke in a teasing tone, provoking her. “Come, now, Miss Lancester. I don’t bite.”
She drew up hotly. She prided herself on her control. “I’m not overset—”
“Aren’t you?” He took another step toward her. “It is good to see me again. You must have wondered where I’ve been. Where a man disappears to after having his heart crushed under the heel of a hard woman’s shoe.”
Some of her fire went out. Had she hurt him? He had a way of seeming sincere, even when she knew he was a blackguard.
He took a step around the back of her desk, drawing closer to her still. His crystalline eyes penetrated hers. “My heart has been stomped on. Flattened. Ground right into the carpet.”
His last stride brought him within arm’s reach of her.
She didn’t need a mirror to see her treasonous response to his nearness. Her lips had parted. Tiny, hitched breaths escaped her as her bosom rose and fell. Even while she knew his words to be nothing but sweet, addictive venom, she wanted them to be true. Had he been affected by her harsh treatment of him? Had she, perhaps, let her silent resentment simmer too hot, and too long?
She scrambled around her desk and dashed to the door. She couldn’t pity him! Next she’d be disrobing for him, and he hadn’t even tried to kiss her yet!
When she reached the closed door, she spun and stood tall again. If he tried anything more, she could dart into the hallway. “Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t hurt you.”
“Oh, but you did.” He pulled a buttery yellow curtain aside and peeked at the street. Then he yanked the window closed with one smooth motion. “Can you imagine how it’s pained me to know that while I was watching you from afar, you weren’t even aware of me? What we shared, my pet, meant nothing to you. It has taken me months to come to terms with it. My poor pride, you know. I’ve spent half a year in abject misery.”
She crossed her arms under her breasts and glowered at him. Did he expect her to eat up this rubbish with a spoon? She was one of dozens, if not hundreds, of his conquests.
Yet he claimed to have dwelt on her memory. She couldn’t help but feel proud. Perhaps he had. But not because she’d left her mark on his heart—she wasn’t foolish enough to believe that. Because Roman wore anguish as fashionably as a new cravat, and she’d used his mawkishness to her advantage. For in her years of watching him from afar, she’d come to the conclusion that while he pretended to care overly much about everything, in truth, he cared about nothing at all.
“You like abject misery,” she said accusingly. “Your closest acquaintances are your blue devils.”
His face darkened, an unexpected indication that there might be something real buried beneath his polished veneer. He cocked his head as if studying a fascinating specimen. Her. “That’s true. My poet’s heart is built for pining. That hardly means I haven’t felt every hour we’ve been apart. Every minute you’ve been,” he began his advance again, “hiding from me.”
Oh, devil take the man. There was only so much nonsense she could withstand before it became trying. “Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you?”
She craned her neck as he came close enough to tower over her. She wasn’t afraid. For six long months, she’d erected a solid wall around her heart, isolating memories of their one night together. Instead of thinking of him, she’d poured her passion into her school, into her work, into her future. Not into thoughts of his perfect mouth on hers. Not into recalling those vivid blue eyes, or the feel of his naked, muscled body against hers. A man this contemptible couldn’t possibly cause a rational young lady like her a moment’s weakness.
He bent and seared her lips with his. The passion she’d smothered for six long months roared to life. She didn’t like him. She hadn’t missed him. But she’d never forgotten this. She tasted him and breathed in the smell of him. Through months of carefully crafted control, she managed not to reach for him. But her urge to touch him swelled to bursting.
She dug her fingernails into her upper arms and resisted. She shouldn’t let him kiss her. She certainly shouldn’t be kissing him. But…
As long as he was here, dressed in his London finery, as handsome as an archangel and drawing his tongue along hers in slow promise, what reason did she have to stop him? All she must do was remain one step ahead. Lead him to his destruction, not the other way around. By his own admission, wasn’t she winning?
His hands cupped her shoulders through her dove gray gown. He used his height to coerce her one step backward, until her shoulders bumped against the door. She moaned against his lips. He wanted her. He desired her. He’d come all this way to kiss her again.
It was a heady power.
His hands slid along her upper arms. She tightened her forearms more firmly across her bodice. As though recognizing the wall between them, he encircled her wrists with his fingers. His knuckles brushed the bottom of her bosom as he gently pried her limbs from their shield.
Nothing stood between them now but their clothes…and their past.
His thumbs caressed her palms. Then his hands were on her, attempting to feel her shape through her stays. She tilted her head to one side and allowed him to trail hot kisses along her neck and against the ruffled fichu tucked into her bodice. One advantage of bringing London’s most notorious rake to heel was that he knew exactly how to make it worth her while.
“Miss Lancester,” he said between ticklish nibbles, “tell me you missed me, too.”
The blond stubble on his jaw glinted in the afternoon sun. His eyes were half-closed. He was so beautifully handsome, she could turn into a puddle of want at his feet.
No. She wanted him at her feet. And then she wanted him gone.
She angled her chin so he could kiss the delicate skin under her earlobe. “I would never say such a thing.”
Without warning, he lifted her and swept her to the desk. Papers slid from the polished mahogany. He paused to relocate her standish to a nearby bookshelf and in those two seconds, she had her chance to stop him from ravishing her again.
Those seconds passed without incident.
He returned to her, dropping kisses along the side of her face before slanting his warm mouth over hers. His palms inched down her waist. She gasped as he branded her beneath her stays. His touch seemed to sear her heart, for she desired him with a passion that defied her feeble attempts to pretend otherwise.
An irrational passion. One that might very well leave him dead.
Her stomach heaved. She pulled away from his kiss. They must stop. Her father had died for his infidelity. Roman would surely meet the same fate if she were foolish enough to consider him hers.
Yet without his kisses, she felt bereft. Her fingers grappled for Roman’s lapels. “My lord?”
He opened his eyes slowly. Infinite azure gradually focused on her. As if he’d been far, far away. “Tell me to stop.”
She hesitated. Her fingertips drew along the folds of his cravat. What reason did she have to deny herself this moment, if she promised to walk away as coolly as she had done the time before? So long as he remained out of her reach, she couldn’t hurt him.
He couldn’t hurt her.
“Don’t stop,” she murmured, tugging him closer.
His eyes searched hers convincingly. “Am I worth it, then?”
He was an expert rake, one who couldn’t possibly care whether she loved him or not. He sought only to make her admit her weakness for him. She refused to give him the satisfaction. Yet she feared her answer was in her eyes, impossible to hide no matter how hard she tried. Because she did love him, as she always had.
Even if he didn’t deserve it.
His cravat rose and fell with each erratic breath. “As I thought,” he said of her silence. “You would deny me the chance to be happy.”
Oh, how she hungered for his words to be true.
He dipped his head and met her lips again. This time, his kiss was insistent. He tugged her fichu from her décolletage with his teeth and dropped the sheer fabric against her collarbone. “I’ve thought of nothing but you since the masque ball,” he said between grazes along her clavicle. “You can’t deny we were extraordinary. Say it. Tell me you missed me, too.”
She gripped the wool of his greatcoat and inhaled air laden with his lemon soap scent. She had thought of him. A woman didn’t forget the man who’d taken her virtue.
His lips teased her nipple beneath the many layers of cloth. He began inching fistfuls of gown up her legs. “Say it,” he urged her, his voice roughened with need.
But she wouldn’t admit she’d missed him. She wouldn’t surrender her hard won control. Their tryst had been one night’s rendezvous designed to avenge the many young ladies he’d ruined, and her own dashed hopes. A torrid assignation capping weeks of her concentrated effort to build his awareness of her, all for the goal of seducing him and walking away with her heart intact. How could she have missed him, when leaving him bereft had been her intent all along?
He tossed up her skirts, exposing her stocking-clad legs, and pulled her body along the slick surface of her desk. Her bottom almost reached the edge. With deft hands he unlaced her drawers and tugged them down, betraying his experience in such matters. But she refused to allow her temper to ruin this unexpected chance to have him for her own.
As his hands nudged gently at her knees, she could hear nothing but the sound of her frantic pulse. She could think of nothing but what he was about to do. He studied her for one breathless moment before he fully parted her legs. Then, bending down, he dipped his face toward her most intimate place. Those piercing eyes never left hers. When his tongue darted out to lick her, she jumped, then moaned as he began to sweep his tongue against her sensitive mound.
Quickly, her moans became whimpers. She could feel a familiar thing happening. Building from the place where his tongue met her flesh. He worked his tongue faster and she couldn’t stop, couldn’t look away, couldn’t keep her body from contracting and arching toward him. Suddenly, pleasure burst within her. She cried out, then clamped her hand across her lips, while the sound of her panting seemed to grow louder and louder until it overcame the staccato pounding of her blood.
It was as much his panting as hers, she realized. His cravat billowed as he rose from his knees. He loosened the fall of his breeches. His member sprang forth and she reached for it.
Today, now, she pleaded silently, refusing to ask him aloud. I can no longer wait for you.
Her whimper caused a breathless laugh to issue from his lips. He slid her even farther down so that she had to cling to him. And oh, how she held him tight. She’d never forget this bittersweet anticipation as long as she lived.
She hooked her heels around his thighs and silently begged again for him to hurry.
One of his large hands gripped his length. The other splayed across her back. He poised himself to enter her. But he didn’t, not yet. “Tell me,” he insisted, his brow marred by a frown.
She clung to him. Ached for him. All the while, she resisted him. “No.”
He watched her with those penetrating eyes. “I did miss you,” he rasped, and plunged himself into her.
Her heart sank to the floor. As though she’d fallen too far, too fast. He thrust himself deep into her again. And again. He held her so close, she could almost believe they’d been merged into one. Was she wrong? Had she missed him?
No. She would never have allowed herself to. She couldn’t risk it—
A knock sounded at the door. The same door she’d always encouraged her staff to enter without hesitation, for she abhorred formality in all things. Roman paused his punishing rhythm as her life stopped around her. She knew one true, terrible moment of destruction, of sensing her meticulously constructed plans about to come crashing down.
Mr. Mowry and Mr. Strickett entered, followed by a third person.
Mr. Strickett’s wife.
Lucy buried her face against Roman’s chest. He clamped his hand against her head and held her brow to his cravat. She fought a surge of hot tears. She wouldn’t cry. This wasn’t happening. She couldn’t have allowed herself to lose everything in a moment of weakness.
His voice rumbled through his chest. “If you don’t mind, please leave.”
Horrified laughter gurgled through her. She swallowed it back before it burst out. Surely, he hadn’t just said that.
Lightly, he squeezed her head. Whether because he knew she’d almost snickered aloud or to prevent her from showing her face, she didn’t know. But it was a small comfort that he held her at all.
In the background, Mrs. Strickett continued to make shocked noises and no one made any move to leave.
Roman cleared his throat. “Mr. Mowry, that was your cue to show our visitors through the door.”
“Y-yes, my l-lord,” her retainer stuttered, clearly stupefied to find his straitlaced employer with her skirts hiked to her thighs and a gentleman between her knees. “Please, sir, come this way. The drawing room is right through here.”
“I say!” Mr. Strickett finally exclaimed.
“I do, too!” Mrs. Strickett agreed.
Lucy prayed she’d sink straight through the desk. She wanted to disappear. This wasn’t happening. It was a nightmare. She’d fought too valiantly against the madness lurking in her blood to embrace it after one brief glimpse of Roman.
But she didn’t wake up. This was real.
Roman cupped her head and made murmuring sounds only she could hear. Oddly, his heart was hammering, too. He was just as frightened as she was. Why? Wasn’t this exactly the sort of thing he was always doing? Ruining innocent girls, leaving scandal and mayhem in his wake?
Shuffling noises ensued as Mr. Mowry attempted to back Wilhelmina’s parents out of the room. Lucy and Roman were still joined. What felt like years was only the blink of seconds. Oh, this was a disaster. She’d known not to trust herself with him. She could never resist him. She was too much like her mother, intoxicated by the allure of a handsome man.
Lucy squeezed her eyes shut. One discomforting tear leaked anyway. She held her breath, willed herself not to tremble, and tried to convince herself it wasn’t as bad as all that. Why, she and Roman might have been doing anything. There were perfectly valid reasons for her legs to be wrapped around his hips, weren’t there?
Mrs. Strickett’s voice faded as she followed her husband into the hall. “I will say. I’ll tell everyone I see. This school is a disgrace. Wilhelmina! Willie! You, there—Mowry, is it? Come away from that horrid room and find my daughter. No, I’ll find her myself. Wilhelmina!”
A man’s footsteps hurried away from Lucy’s office. Then the door closed.
Lucy began to laugh. The guffaws burst from her, absurd and uncontrollable. She laughed hard at first, then harder still as Roman went to the door and slid the bolt home. Far, far too late. Everything she’d worked for, everything she’d planned was destroyed. She laughed until she had tears streaming down her face.
“What the devil is so funny?” he asked sharply.
Her hand covered her mouth, but it was no help. She couldn’t stop laughing. “I’m ruined.” Her throat closed around a sob. “I’ll never be welcome in Society again. And my school—it’s ruined as well. Mrs. Strickett is highly placed. Word will reach the uppermost circles, and then no one will send their daughter to the School for Accomplished Young Ladies.”
Lucy choked back another sob. Her hands were shaking. Just a small vibration at first, but then her shoulders quaked. She pushed her skirts over her knees and buried her face in her hands, the situation made all the worse because Roman was witnessing her humiliating display of hysterics. “I shall be forced b-back to Worston in d-disgrace. Everyone will know I allowed my passions to lead me. Trestin will n-never let me out of his s-sight again.”
The threat of her brother’s hawk-eyed supervision was worst of all. She yearned for adventure in the city. He demanded her docility in the country. She’d dreamed up her School for Accomplished Young Ladies precisely because living as a spinster in his household had become intolerable.
She wiped away her tears and drew several shaky breaths. If only she hadn’t lost her head! That glorious night last spring when she’d given herself to Roman had gone nothing like this. She’d disappeared from his life and her lovely little school had opened precisely as planned, all because the door to Mrs. Galbraith’s spare bedchamber had been perfectly locked.
Her cheeks heated as her temper flared. Her first assignation with Roman hadn’t escaped Trestin’s attention. Her brother had demanded marriage before. She’d barely convinced him of the hazard in chaining her to a reprobate like their father.
Trestin wouldn’t be as understanding when he learned of her mistake this time. After he discovered she’d returned to Roman’s arms, he’d insist upon a wedding. When she refused, he’d become even more insufferable. And what was to become of her school? Her teachers, her students? The women who depended on her for wages and board, and the charity girls who had nowhere else to go?
And what of Celeste, her sister-by-law and friend? She’d generously donated thousands of pounds to found the school. What would she think? She’d made Lucy promise to guard her reputation; it had been a stipulation of their joint venture. Surely, she’d be saddened when she learned Lucy had ruined everything, even after Celeste had warned her not to let this happen.
Lucy sat straighter, forcing herself to consider her options rationally. If only things could be kept quiet! But she had no hope of that. Those people who weren’t told by Mrs. Strickett or one of her tale-telling friends would see it in the scandal sheets. Lucy was going to be publicly humiliated.
She’d lose her school.
She’d lose her reputation.
She’d lose her brother’s sympathy, however scarcely it had been doled before.
Most importantly, she’d lose her autonomy.
Another sob burst from her.
Roman pivoted to face her. His clothing had been returned to its proper place. He stood at an indolent angle, regarding her with just a hint of a smile. A picture of carefree gentility, as if her world hadn’t just broken apart around her. “We do need to quit meeting like this, Miss Lancester.”
She swiped at her tears with ink-tipped fingers and tried to forget the taste of him on her lips. “I needn’t ask how you can be so cavalier, given your history.”
“It’s not polite to refer to the other young ladies you think your lover has compromised.” Despite his flippancy, his tone had an edge.
She pushed herself from her desk and began to pace. Focusing her thoughts had always been the best course to settle her high spirits. What to do, what to do? Did she need to hold an audience with Mr. Strickett and his wife? Was it better if she left them to collect their daughter and leave, or should she try to explain? What was there to explain? Even if they didn’t think she and Roman had been in flagrante delicto, they’d been kissing, and her legs had been wrapped around his hips, and—Zeus, but there was no hope Mrs. Strickett could be brought to believe anything chaste had been occurring.
“Lucy, stop.” Roman strode toward her and grabbed her hand. “You’re panicking. Don’t panic. It can’t help us.”
She stopped and pinned him with a black look, hating that he was right. She was quickly going mad. “I’m the one whose reputation has been served to the wolves. You’ll do what you always do. Walk away.”
His jaw tightened. “Is that what I did before?”
She faltered, remembering how quickly he’d offered her marriage last spring. “No.”
He took another step toward her. Her heart stuttered.
“Whose fault is it we aren’t married?” he asked her, his body rigid with tension. “We could be doing this—” He tugged her hand hard enough to bring her stumbling into his chest. Her palm splayed across his waistcoat, holding him back as his handsome face filled with disconcerting seriousness. “Every night. Without consequences.”
Oh, but he was wrong. There would be consequences. Her broken heart, for one. His cold, dead body for another. When she looked at him, all she saw was his blood on her hands.
She tried to pull away, but he held her tightly against him. “Release me.”
“Trestin won’t let us out of it so easily this time. Marry me before he leaves us no choice.” Roman’s smile didn’t meet his eyes. “I’ll be the happiest man in the world.”
She pushed so hard against his chest, he finally freed her. She spun away and moved behind her desk. The papers concealing her letter knife had been disturbed by their lovemaking. Its silver blade gleamed in the sunlight. “A woman would have to be mad to marry you.”
He cocked his head as if trying to make sense of her words. “Then your answer is no?”
Her breasts heaved against her desire to say yes. Yes, yes. “No matter how many times you ask me, the answer is the same. Now, you’d best go before my staff returns. There is no longer any point in holding Mr. Mowry back.”
“You want me to leave?” he asked incredulously. “When your future is so uncertain? What kind of man do you think I am?”
What kind of man, indeed. She knew exactly what kind. The sort best kept far, far away from her. “I would rather be ruined than bound to you.”
His laughter rang hollow. “Pray, Lucy-love, what the devil have I done to earn your contempt? Doesn’t a fellow deserve to have his crimes read aloud to him?”
Rage built to a thunderhead inside her. She hated when he called her Lucy-love. She hated more that he appeared genuinely perplexed. He’d wronged her. He ought to remember it. “It is the very fact of your not knowing that causes me to doubt your sincerity.”
He stepped forward. Sunlight glinted off him in little golden deceptions, flashing from his brass buttons, his watch fob, his sapphire signet ring. More lies, for he was as impoverished as she. “Is it because you believe there have been others? My Innocents, as they’re called. Perjurers, the lot of them. I’ve despoiled no one but you.”
Oh, he was bold to attempt such a blatant falsehood. Hundreds of women had set their cap at him. Dozens more had found their way into his bed.
“You were chaste, then?” she shot back. “I was your first?”
He blinked. “Certainly not.”
His surprisingly honest reply drove into her heart like the letter knife. “Your constancy, then,” she needled him. “You were devoted to my memory these last months while you pined for my company?”
His lips thinned. “No.”
She flinched though this admission, too, was only the truth. “Can you doubt my answer then?”
His black look spoke volumes.
Good. He deserved to feel put out.
She stood taller and looked down her nose at the scoundrel standing in her office. It was time for him to leave. She needed to collect the shattered pieces of her life and reassemble them into an acceptable solution before she was turned out on the street, forced to slink back to her brother’s house for lack of option. She could hardly be expected to concentrate on anything if Roman Alexander was standing there looking daggers at her.
“Your coat likely cost what your home farm turns over in a year,” she said, indicating to his blue superfine coat, “yet you purchased it anyway. Your creditors chase you from London to Devon and back again. You’re charming, gifted with a silver tongue, and spoiled. If you want to marry, find a woman who appreciates your many fine qualities. I do not.”
His nostrils flared. He drew himself up to his full height, more than a foot above hers. “Miss Lancester. I came here to prove something to myself, and it has been proved. I cannot break your heart as you broke mine, because you have no heart.” He bowed curtly at the waist without waiting for her response. “I bid you good day.”
With that astounding speech, he left her.
Jennifer Hayes on Jenerated Reviews wrote:
"This is a novel with an amazing, amazing heart -- and that heart belongs to Roman Alexander."
on Buried Under Romance:
"A story of human error, accountability and ultimately forgiveness of oneself and others brings this novel full circle. The magnetic attraction between the hero and heroine was an added bonus to this appealing book."
"The Art of Ruining a Rake is an absolutely fabulous historical romance! Ms. Locke is a fantastically talented writer, her prose is effortless, elegant and witty, the dialogues are spectacular, and the banter between Roman and Lucy is priceless... There is real passion, the character development is beyond compare, it's fun, light, and lovely; a complete and utter delight."
The Art of Ruining a Rake tells the story of Roman Alexander and Lucy Lancester, whose story began when they were secondary characters in The Trouble with Being Wicked and continued in their prequel novella, A Game of Persuasion. Enjoy their emotional journey to happily ever after, and visit with old characters in this new entry in the Scandalous Spinsters series.