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Prudence's plan to save her beautiful sisters from the brutal guardianship of their grandfather seems foolproof... until she comes up against a charming, devious and utterly irresistible rake.

"What have we here, Bartlett?"

Prudence jumped. In the doorway stood a tall, dark, rather raffish-looking gentleman. Prudence blinked. She had seen several dukes since arriving in London. This one did not look as a duke ought to look. Though his clothing was of the finest quality it was rumpled and crumpled. His coat was unbuttoned and carelessly worn. His neckcloth was a little skewed and knotted negligently beneath quite moderate shirt points. And he seemed not to have shaved, for his chin, though attractively shaped, was decidedly dark and rough-looking.

She had expected a duke, even a hermit duke, to be a little more dapper in appearance. Only royal dukes looked this disheveled. But perhaps this was why he was a hermit. Or perhaps she had got him out of his bed. For some reason the thought made her blush.

Had she not known who he was, she might have been concerned at being alone with such a man, for he looked decidedly dark and dangerous. And the gleam in his eye as he looked at her was certainly not one a girl should trust, Prudence decided, duke or no! His eyes were dark and narrow and seemed to be laughing at her for no reason she could imagine.

She sat a little straighter on the hard chair and clutched her reticule beneath her bosom.

"Bartlett?" he repeated to the butler standing just outside the door. He sauntered in, not taking his eyes off Prudence. "Who is our charming visitor?"

The butler followed him into the room, bringing with him the faint scent of musk. "This Young Person, sir, arrived Intemperately this morning, announcing her determination to converse with the Duke of Dinstable. There is another Female outside, who accompanied the Young Person."

Prudence jumped up indignantly. "How dare you speak of me in that tone! I am not a Young Person at all—I am a young lady! And I did not arrive intemperately. It is a perfectly reasonable hour—"

The tall gentleman's brow quirked skeptically, and she flushed and corrected herself with dignity, recalling that she had probably got him out of his bed. And that she was supposed to be a bored and soignée young lady, quite accustomed to calling on gentlemen.

"Perhaps it is a little early for some people, but when you hear what I have to say, Your Grace, I am sure you will understand."

"Oh but—" began the butler.

"That will be all, Bartlett," the tall gentleman said suavely.

The butler hesitated a moment, looking doubtfully from the duke to Prudence.

Prudence bridled at his expression. "Your master will be quite safe with me," she snapped. "I mean him no harm!"

The tall gentleman chuckled softly. "You heard the lady, Bartlett. I am quite safe with her. You may go."

~~~

"I must apologize, Your Grace, for it is all my fault. I truly never meant to drag you into it, only . . ." She sighed. "It is a complicated tale, but I shall try to cut it to the bare essentials."

He smiled. "Good. I always prefer essentials bared."

Somehow, he made it sound . . . wicked. Prudence blinked hurriedly and wished she'd brought a fan. It really was very warm in here all of a sudden. "You see, one of us must find a husband quickly, only it cannot be me."

One dark winged eyebrow arched in a sardonic query.

She hurried on. "It must be one of my sisters. Only my great-uncle thinks that we should not come out together, that I should come out first."

"I see."

She flushed and for some reason found that she could not bring herself to explain the reason to him. "Yes. So I told him a lie and, and, your name came up, and I'm sorry, I truly am. I thought it would help my sisters to come out, only it has all come awry. I did not think it would cause such a problem because I thought you safe in the wilds of Scotland! I had counted on the delay, you see. And letters go astray, all the time."

The mobile mouth twitched a little and the hard expression in his eyes was replaced by an amused gleam. "It was thoughtless of me to come to London, I see. So inconvenient." He smiled a slow smile, and for a moment it drove all rational thought from her head.

She stammered, "Oh, n—no. You could not know. But I was shocked to find you here. For you almost never mix in society, do you?"

"No," he said apologetically. "I do not care for many of the people, you see."

The clock struck half past the hour, chiming once in a somber, fatalistic fashion. Prudence jumped. "Oh no—half past nine. Already!" She resumed her pacing.

"Yes, a ridiculous hour, I agree." He yawned.

Ridiculous? Prudence stared at him in amazement. He clearly had not grasped the urgency of the situation. If only he would stop looking at her like—, like an amused satyr, she might be able to manage a clear and rational explanation! "The thing is, Your Grace, Great-uncle Oswald is coming to see you. Any minute now. To demand an explanation."

"Oh, Great-uncle Oswald is also vexed with me for not staying in Scotland, is he?"

"Oh no," said Prudence, distractedly. "He is delighted you are here, of course." She flushed and swallowed and tried to gather her composure. "For . . . for reasons that are rather complicated—but altruistic—I allowed my great Uncle to come to a certain conclusion about you. And me." She felt her face heat further. It was not like her to dither, but the situation was truly fantastical, and the way this man's gaze kept slipping over her was very disconcerting. He flustered her.

"A certain conclusion?"

She cast him a look of entreaty, putting off the horrid moment of truth yet again. "You must believe me, Your Grace. I never meant to land anyone in a pickle."

"No, of course not." His eyes were dancing now, she noticed. How could he be amused at a time like this!

He stood up, strolled across the room and pulled at the cord hanging by the fireplace. In a moment the door opened and the butler stood there.
"A brandy, if you please, Bartlett. And something for the lady. Ratafia? Tea?"

Prudence was appalled. "You cannot possibly mean to be drinking spirituous liquor at this time of the morning!"

The duke nodded at Bartlett. "Tea for Miss Merridew, then, and brandy for me. And Bartlett, bring the decanter."

"But you cannot greet Great-uncle Oswald with a glass of brandy in your hand!"

"My dear girl, I am afraid I cannot greet him any other way. It is not morning for me, you see, but the end of a particularly long and tedious night. And if I am to be thrust into a pickle without the fortification of a brandy, I cannot answer for the consequences."

Guilt stabbed Prudence at his words. She rallied. The situation was difficult enough to explain without the duke getting drunk. "But Great-uncle Oswald abhors the Evils of Liquor!"

"He can have tea, then."

"Oh, will you please be serious! You cannot imagine what is about to happen!"

He laughed at that, a deep throated chuckle that filled the room. "I have not the faintest notion what any of this is about."

Just then Bartlett arrived with a tea tray on which stood a pot of tea, a plate of cakes, a cup and saucer, a fat crystal glass, and a tall crystal decanter containing a mellow golden liquid. As he placed it on a side table, the front door knocker sounded thunderously. Prudence squeaked. "Oh no! He is here! Great-uncle Oswald!"

"I believe it is the lady's great-uncle at the door, Bartlett," the duke said. "Show him in, if you please."
Bartlett bowed, thin-lipped, then left the room in a stately manner to answer the summons.

"The thing is," Prudence gabbled, "for reasons I have no time to explain just now, I told him that you and I were secretly betrothed—"

The smile on his face froze. "Betrothed!"

"Yes, I am sorry. It was all I could think of to make him see reason about Charity and the twins making their coming-out—for which the need is urgent, though I cannot explain why. But Great-uncle Oswald will not let them come out with me—"

"I imagine he has good reason—" the duke said ironically.

"Well, yes, because—" She flushed. "The reason does not matter. What matters is that they cannot enter society until I am out of the way and I thought you would suit my purposes perfectly, being a famous hermit—"

"Are you really?" he interjected interestedly.

"Am I what?" demanded Prudence, confused.

"A famous hermit."

"Not me, lack-wit—you!" she snapped. "Oh, I do beg your pardon—my nerves are shredded! But you are the famous hermit! Except you've emerged from your hermitage, and some wretched busybody put it in the paper, and now here is Great-uncle Oswald come to demand that you marry me! Immediately!"

"What!"

That wiped the smile from his face, she noted with satisfaction. "I told you it was serious, Your Grace."

An expression of unholy glee flashed across the dark-visaged face. "I can see it is." He chuckled. "And I definitely need that brandy." He strolled across the room to the tray with the decanter. "Would you care to pour your tea, Miss Merridew?"

Outside, Prudence could hear Great-uncle Oswald noisily demanding to see the Duke of Dinstable. She hurried across to where the duke was standing and laid a reassuring hand on his arm. "Do not fear," she whispered hastily, "It may be a tangle, but it is not a trap. If you will only allow my uncle to believe we did have an understanding, I promise you most faithfully I will sever the engagement immediately. Please, I beg of you, just follow my lead. Trust me, Your Grace. I mean you no harm."

He glanced down at her hand patting his arm soothingly. "Trust you?" His eyes caught hers and held them for a long, long moment, and for a second Prudence felt as if something important had happened. But then he shifted, and his eyes laughed down at her again as if that moment of connection had never been. "Then bring on your dragons, fair maiden," he said, and lifted his glass to his lips.

Prudence scanned his face worriedly. He was very hard to read. For a second there she'd felt so . . . so heartened by that long look, as if she could depend on him in some way. Yet a moment later he seemed to find the whole thing hugely entertaining and was quite unworried by the prospect of Great-uncle Oswald's imminent arrival. Was that because, as a duke, he thought himself perfectly safe?
She took a deep breath and braced herself for the coming scene.

Gideon watched her interestedly out of the corner of his eye. She was an attractive little thing, he decided, not conventionally beautiful, but with a decided air of determination and a most appealing way of looking at him. Her simple pale green gown set off her thick, glorious hair, pale skin, and wide gray eyes. The simple style, the direct gray gaze was refreshing, in a Quakerish sort of fashion.

Not that her behavior was Quakerish in the least—but then nor was his interest, he had to admit. That small, stubborn chin was braced for trouble, prepared to meet it head on. It seemed as though, having imagined she had got him into hot water, she was now prepared to defend him.

He found it rather refreshing. He sipped the cognac and made a small wager with himself as to how far she would let the joke go before she confessed all. Of course she might be a blackmailing harpy, but he didn't think so. He was all too well acquainted with females of that variety.
"So, you will defend me from your great-uncle?" he asked softly.

She turned back to him with wide, sincere eyes. "Of course I will."

It was more than refreshing; it was irresistible, and Gideon couldn't help himself. Without thinking, he put down his glass, pulled her into his arms, and kissed her. He'd meant it to be a swift, light kiss, something of a thanks with a touch of mischievous provocation, but instead found himself plunged into unexpected depths. She tasted of surprise and sweetness and innocence, but she could not disguise her instinctive response to him. No Quakerishness there, he thought raggedly and took the kiss deeper.

The taste of her was intoxicating. He let his own instincts rule him and drew her more firmly against his body, enjoying the way her soft curves molded against him. Her stiffness slowly dissolved and when he felt the first tentative response from her, it sent a thread of pure possessiveness arching through him.

A clatter outside the door brought him to his senses. Reluctantly he released her, and she moved back an inch or two, blinking up at him, looking adorably confused. He was very tempted to kiss her again.

She eyed him with a mixture of disapproval and shocked awareness. "You should not have done that."

He took a moment to respond. "I'll do it again in a moment if you didn't stop looking at me like that."

"Don't you dare!" She gave him a haughty little warning glare.

He fought the urge to smile. Even her disapproval was appealing. Mastering the urge to kiss her again, he picked up his cognac and sipped. The door was thrown open. Prudence jumped visibly and clutched Gideon's arm. He was certain she had no idea of it.

"Good God!" A fussily dressed elderly man came into the room and stood stock-still on the threshold, staring at the occupants in stupefaction. "Prudence! How come you to be here?"

This was, no doubt, Great-uncle Oswald. In a leisurely manner, Gideon finished his cognac, well aware that the elderly man was snorting and snuffing in outrage, but forced by good manners to wait for his host to acknowledge his presence. Gideon let him wait. Miss Merridew was still clutching his arm—unconsciously, he suspected, though he couldn't be sure. He waited for Great-uncle Oswald to become aware of it. It did not take long.

"What shamelessness is this?" The old man's face darkened, and his white brows gnashed fiercely together.

Never one to overlook an opportunity, Gideon wrapped his arm around her waist. It was a delightful waist, he decided, soft and inviting, with the most appealing curves above and below. She stiffened under his clasp.

"Unhand my great-niece, you unshaven lout!" roared Great-uncle Oswald.

The unshaven lout ignored him and hugged the great-niece a little tighter around the waist. He leered down at her.

Great-uncle Oswald gobbled like an enraged turkey. Flushing, Prudence wriggled out of Gideon's grip, pushed his hands away, and stammered an introduction
"Great-uncle Oswald, I'd like to present you to the Duke of Dinstable." She cast Gideon a minatory glance. "Your Grace, this is my great-uncle, Sir Oswald Merridew."

Abandoning his pose as vile seducer, Gideon bowed correctly. "Your servant, Sir Oswald."

Sir Oswald gibbered silently, shocked. "You—Your Grace. So it was true, then. But . . . you surely cannot be the blackguard who has cozened my niece in such a havey-cavey way!"

"I expect I must be," Gideon said meekly. "Does it seem havey-cavey to you? I confess, it never occurred to me. Although blackguard does seem a trifle harsh. Rascal, I might accept, even scallywag, and unshaven lout, certainly, since I have been out all night." He passed a rueful hand across his roughened jaw. "But blackguard? Surely not."

In the face of this barefaced provocation, Sir Oswald resumed his gobbling. "What the devil does my great-niece mean to you, sir?" he demanded.

Aware that Miss Merridew was holding her breath anxiously, Gideon hesitated, then cast her a soulful look. "I cannot say," he replied truthfully. After all, he knew almost nothing about her, except that her lips tasted delicious. He heard her exhale in relief and smiled to himself. Did the girl really think he would denounce her? When he was having so much fun?

"Do you deny that you have extracted from her a promise?"

"I could deny it, I suppose, but I doubt you would believe me." He sighed plaintively.

"Disgraceful! Especially for a man of your position. Y'must have known the girl was too young to be allowed to make a promise like that without the knowledge of her guardian!"

Gideon glanced at Prudence and shrugged. "She does not seem too young to me."

"Blast it, man—sixteen is far too young!"

Gideon stared at Prudence in shock. "You cannot be only sixteen! I do not believe it! You look, er, much more mature—" His eyes dropped to the evidence of her maturity.

"Do not prevaricate with me, man! I am talkin' about four and a half years ago, as you very well know!"

"Four and a half years ago?" Gideon repeated blankly.

Prudence, observing his hesitation, stepped into the breach. "When we became betrothed, of course. You must have known I was sixteen at the time."

"Must I?" He grinned. "How?"

"We discussed it at the time," she replied with composure. "You have forgotten."

"Ah yes, I must have been thinking of other things at the time," he agreed, adding softly. "So, that means you must be, what?—add four and a half to sixteen—more than twenty now? Such a great age. No wonder Great-uncle Oswald is desperate to fire you off! Almost on the shelf, as you are."

She narrowed her eyes at him and her fists clenched as if she itched to box his ears. She was utterly delightful, thought Gideon, enjoying himself hugely.

"But you are a duke!" Sir Oswald thundered. "Why wait four years if you wanted the girl?"

"Why indeed?" Gideon poured himself another cognac. "Brandy, Sir Oswald?"

"Poisonin' your innards with brandy? At this hour of the morning? Disgraceful!" Sir Oswald turned puce.

"Ah yes, Miss Merridew did warn me. Tea for you, then, " agreed Gideon gently and waved a hand toward the teapot. "Or shall I ring for a fresh pot?"

With visible difficulty, Sir Oswald harnessed his outrage and moderated his tone. "No, no. Nothin' to drink, I thank you. What I am tryin' to understand," he said, "is why all the secrecy and creepin' around?"
Gideon raised his eyebrows. "Have I been creepin' around," he asked Prudence in a tone of dread. "How very peculiar of me."

Though she primmed her mouth at him, a dimple betrayed her. She was enchanting, caught like this between amusement and outrage.

Sir Oswald persisted. "You know what I mean, blast it! If you wanted the gel, you must have known your suit would be looked on favorably—dammit, you are a duke, after all, even if you do dress like a shag bag!"

Gideon looked affronted. "A shag bag?" He glanced ruefully down at his disheveled clothing, sighed, and turned a pair of mournful eyes on Prudence. "I creep about, and I dress like a shag bag. Are you sure you still wish to be betrothed to me, my dear?"

"No! Not at all," Prudence snapped in exasperation. The interview was not going at all as she had planned it. She should have taken control of the conversation much earlier, only her brain seemed to have seized up for a moment after that kiss. Several moments, in fact. Instead of concentrating on the matter at hand, her wretched mind kept sliding back to relive that scandalous kiss. Even her lips still seemed to tingle from it.

She was in command of herself now, but in the meantime the situation had galloped out of control. If only this wretched duke would stop his nonsense and let her enact the role she had spent half the night rehearsing, it would all be sorted out by now. Instead he seemed to be having a high old time of it.

"Enough of this shilly-shallyin' around!" snapped Great-uncle Oswald. "I want an answer—now! Why did you not come to speak to her guardian, like an honest man?"

Prudence opened her mouth to explain.

"Be silent, gel! I want to hear it from him, demmit! He has spent long enough avoidin' the question!" He turned to the duke. "Come, sirrah! Explain! Why did you not ask for her hand—openly—like a man?"

There was a short silence as the duke considered the question. Prudence held her breath.

"I was shy," said six foot one of bashful male.


~~~~
©Anne Gracie 2005

The Perfect Rake
Berkley Sensation Historical Romance
July 2005
ISBN 0-425-20395-6

 


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