Home > Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake
Author: Sarah MacLean

Prologue

 


London, England

April 1813

Lady Calpurnia Hartwell blinked back tears as she fled the ballroom of Worthington House, the scene of her most recent and most devastating embarrassment. The welcome night air was crisp with the edge of spring as she rushed down the great marble steps, desperation shortening her footsteps and propelling her forward into the shadows of the vast, darkened gardens. Once hidden from view, she let out a deep sigh and slowed her pace, finally safe. Her mother would be livid if she discovered her eldest daughter outside without a chaperone, but nothing could have kept Callie inside that horrible room.

Her first season was an utter failure.

It hadn’t even been a month since she’d made her debut. The eldest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Allendale, Callie should by all rights have been the belle of the ball; she’d been raised for this life—all graceful dancing and perfect manners and stunning beauty. That was the problem, of course. Callie might be a fine dancer with impeccable manners, but a beauty? She was nothing if not pragmatic, and she knew better than to believe she was one of those.

I should have known this would be a disaster, she thought as she plopped herself down onto a marble bench just inside the Worthington hedge maze.

She’d been at the ball for three hours and had not yet been asked to dance by a suitor who wasn’t entirely unsuitable. After two invitations from renowned fortune hunters, one from a crashing bore, and another from a baron who couldn’t have been a day under seventy, Callie hadn’t been able to continue feigning enjoyment. It was obvious that she was worth little more to the ton than the sum total of her dowry and her ancestry—and even that total was not enough to garner a dance with a partner she might actually like. No, the truth was, Callie had spent the better part of the season overlooked by eligible, coveted, young bachelors.

She sighed.

Tonight had been the worst. As if it weren’t enough that she was visible only to the boring and the elderly, tonight she’d felt the stares of the rest of the ton.

“I never should have allowed my mother to pour me into this monstrosity,” she muttered to herself, looking down at the gown in question, at its too-tight waistline and its too-small bodice, unable to contain her breasts, which were a good deal larger than fashion dictated. She was positive that no belle of the ball had ever been crowned in such a vibrant shade of mandarin sunset. Or in such a hideous frock, for that matter.

The dress, her mother had assured her, was the very height of fashion. When Callie had suggested that the gown was not the most flattering to her figure, she had been informed by the countess that she was incorrect. Callie would look stunning, her mother had promised as the modiste had flitted around her, poking and prodding and squeezing her into the gown. And, as she watched her transformation in the dressmaker’s mirror, she’d begun to agree with them. She did look stunning in this dress. Stunningly awful.

Wrapping her arms tightly around her to ward of the evening chill, she closed her eyes in mortification. “I cannot return. I shall just have to live here forever.”

A deep chuckle sounded from the shadows, and Callie shot up, gasping in surprise. She could barely make out the figure of a man as she pulled herself up to her full height and attempted to slow her pounding heart. Before she could think to escape, she spoke, allowing her distaste for the entire evening to lace her tone. “You really shouldn’t sneak up on people in the dark, sir. It isn’t gentlemanly.”

He responded quickly, the deep tenor of his voice sweeping over her. “My apologies. Of course, one might argue that lurking in the darkness isn’t exactly ladylike.”

“Ah. There you have it wrong. I am not lurking in the darkness. I am hiding in it. Quite a different thing, altogether.” She pressed back into the shadows.

“I shan’t give you away,” he spoke quietly, reading her mind as he advanced. “You might as well show yourself. You’re well and truly trapped.”

Callie felt the prickly hedge behind her even as he loomed above and knew that he was right. She sighed in irritation. How much worse could this night get? Just then, he stepped into a sliver of moonlight, revealing his identity, and she had her answer. Much worse.

Her companion was the Marquess of Ralston—charming, devastatingly handsome, and one of London’s most notorious rakes. His wicked reputation was matched only by his wicked smile, which was aimed directly at Callie. “Oh no,” she whispered, unable to keep the desperation from her voice. She could not let him see her. Not like this, trussed up like a Christmas goose. A mandarin sunset Christmas goose.

“What could be so bad, moppet?” The lazy endearment warmed her even as she looked about for an escape route. He was close enough to touch now, towering over her, a good six inches taller than she. For the first time in a long time, she felt small. Dainty, even. She had to escape.

“I…I must go. If I were found here…with you….” She left the sentence unfinished. He knew what would happen.

“Who are you?” His eyes narrowed in the darkness, taking in the soft angles of her face. “Wait…” She imagined his eyes flashing with recognition, “You’re Allendale’s daughter. I noticed you earlier.”

She could not contain her sarcastic response, “I’m sure you did, my lord. It would be rather difficult to overlook me.” She covered her mouth immediately, shocked that she had spoken so baldly.

He chuckled. “Yes. Well, it isn’t the most flattering of gowns.”

She couldn’t help her own laughter from slipping out. “How very diplomatic of you. You may admit it. I look rather too much like an apricot.”

This time, he laughed aloud. “An apt comparison. But I wonder, is there ever a point where one looks enough like an apricot?” He indicated that she should resume her place on the bench and, after a moment’s hesitation, she did so.

“Likely not.” She smiled broadly, amazed that she wasn’t nearly as humiliated by his agreement as she would have expected. No, indeed she found it rather freeing. “My mother…she’s desperate for a daughter she can dress like a porcelain doll. Sadly, I shall never be such a child. How I long for my sister to come out and distract the countess from my person.”

He joined her on the bench, asking, “How old is your sister?”

“Eight,” she said, mournfully.

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