Lady Rosabella's Ruse


None of the women at an "anything goes" house party catches Garth Evernden's jaded eye. The only one worth noting is a covered-up lady's companion with an intriguing hint of exotic beauty the eighth Baron Stanford would like to uncover…

Rose is in fact posing as a widow to find her inheritance—without it, she and her sisters will surely perish! The baron is known for his generosity, and he is so very handsome!

A new solution springs to Rose's mind…surely becoming mistress to this rake would bring definite advantages?

An excerpt from Lady Rosabella's Ruse:

The weight of tedium hung heavy in the air. After only one hour at Lady Keswick's Sussex mansion, Garth Evernden, eighth Baron Stanford, was bored. Summer house parties were all the same, deadly dull or wildly hedonistic and utterly predictable.
As he prowled in the wake of his hostess's butler along a corridor lined with every Greek god known to man, he wondered why he hadn't gone to Brighton. A fleeting thought of Prinny and his cronies produced a yawn.

Why had he accepted Lady Keswick's invitation? Ah, yes, now he remembered his purpose. Having delivered Clarissa her conge last month, he needed an occupant for his discreet town house in Blackheath. A woman who would entertain his nights and stay out of his days. This gathering of philanderers and fast widows might provide such a woman, but now he was here, hope seemed elusive.

The butler threw back a pair of French doors. 'The terrace, my lord, where you will find everyone gathered.'

'No need to announce me.'

The butler grinned. 'Hadn't planned to, my lord. No standing on ceremony at The Grange.'

He'd forgotten Lady Keswick's refreshing informality. Perhaps his stay wouldn't be so bad.

A group of five or six men in dark coats and women in pastels hung over the terrace's grey-stone parapet gazing at the lawn.

'Look at Fitz go!' one of the men hooted. Hapton. A slender brown-haired dandy of about forty summers, with a penchant for fast women and outrageous wagers. 'I'll wager a pony on him.'

The woman in yellow at his right turned her back on the view and laughed up at Hapton. Mrs Mallow made an enchanting picture with her lovely, if somewhat hard, face framed by luxurious chestnut curls and a lavender parasol. 'My money is on the gardeners. Fitz is all go at the start, but in my experience, he has no stamina.'

General laughter along the rail met the sally.

Seeing Garth, Mrs Mallow waved. Hapton turned to look, grimaced, then swung back to whatever had their attention on the lawn. Taller than most, Garth peered over Hapton's shoulder. It was a human wheelbarrow race. Two gentlemen against two brawny young men in homespun. Garth sighed. God, they were childish. He hoped this wasn't the pinnacle of the entertainment to come.

Having not yet greeted his hostess, he turned away from the view and spotted her seated in a chair on wheels in the shade of a cluster of potted yews. A monstrous red wig battled with the purple of a sarcenet gown cut low enough to reveal an expanse of enormous breasts. Struggling to keep his gaze on her face and not the jiggling mass of flesh, he made his bow. 'Lady Keswick, your servant.'

'Lord Stanford. Welcome.' She offered him a lazy smile, her puffy cheeks swelling to melon-sized proportions and practically obliterating her twinkling faded blue eyes. 'I hope my staff took proper care of you?'

One hand to his heart, he offered his most charming smile. 'The accommodations are excellent. I congratulate you on your new home.'

'Good. Very good.' She eyed him a little askance. 'I expected you yesterday.'

'I had trouble tearing myself away from a prior engagement.'

'I never heard you had trouble bidding a woman farewell. Who was it this time?'

He raised a brow, let the mockery show on his face. 'I don't remember.'

A rich chuckle set her bosom trembling like a blancmange carried by a nervous footman. 'Cheeky rogue. Now I recall why I invited you. You make me laugh.'

She made him laugh, too. Most of the time. He grinned at her. 'Is everyone here?'

'All that's condescended to come.'

He eyed the women speculatively. From this angle, their pink, yellow and blue-clad bottoms were presented in a row like choice desserts on a plate—they looked delicious. Choosing was always interesting.

Tasting could be a disappointment.

A dog, an overweight pug, waddled from beneath the elderly lady's skirts and growled at his reflection in Garth's boots.

'Hello, old chap.' Garth bent down and scratched behind the dog's ears. 'Who are you?' The dog stared up at him with bulbous eyes.

'Digger,' Lady Keswick said. 'Come, sir. Lie down.'

The dog swaggered back into hiding.

A movement deeper in the shadows of the potted trees brought Garth to his feet. Another woman was seated behind his hostess, her black attire making her almost invisible.

He disguised a sharp intake of breath as he took in the woman's face. Pale olive skin and dark, almond-shaped eyes gave her perfectly oval face an exotic mysterious look. The raven-black hair swept back and tightly constrained at her nape only added to the impression of reserve. His fingers tingled with the urge to see it fall in luxurious lengths to her shoulders. Her mouth tightened as he continued his perusal and he let his gaze linger on her lips. Set in her Madonnalike face, that mouth was a wonder. Full and lush, it spoke of carnal delights while it pretended disapproval.

A woman garbed like a nun with the face of a temptress.

He bowed. 'I beg your pardon, madam. I did not see you.'

He glanced at Lady Keswick for an introduction and was surprised to see an odd expression flicker across the normally placid face. Concern? The look disappeared too fast for him to be sure. She waved an indolent pudgy hand. 'Mrs Travenor.'

Married. Garth didn't quite believe his instant flash of disappointment.

'My dear, meet the worst scapegrace in London,' the old lady continued. 'Mrs Travenor is my companion.'

A widow, then. He cheered instantly. Illogically.

Mrs Travenor rose to greet him. Taller than he'd guessed, her eyes were on a level with his chin. Tall and willowy. She made a stiff curtsy, her head dipping briefly. Jasmine wafted up from her skin. A sensual fragrance for a woman who dressed like a crow. A pair of velvety brown eyes dusted with gold at their centres steadily returned his gaze. 'My lord.' The soft husky voice raised the hairs on his arms. The jolt of unwanted lust annoyed him. There was nothing about this woman to suggest she would welcome a discreet liason. Then why was he interested?

He inclined his head. 'A pleasure to meet you, Mrs Travenor.'

A shaft of sunlight released by a passing cloud gilded the young woman's warm-coloured skin, illuminating the quiet purity of her expression. A virginal widow? Hardly likely. But a woman best avoided.

She was the kind of female who expected the parson's mousetrap at the end of the day. Had walked that path once already. He didn't want a wife. The thought made him shudder. He had an heir. His brother. A man who deserved the title of Stanford, and Garth would make sure he got it.

'Enough, Stanford.'

Garth realised he was still staring at the widow and dragged his gaze back to Lady Keswick. The elderly woman smiled at her companion fondly. 'Rose doesn't deserve your kind of trouble.'

Rose. The name seemed too trite for such exotic loveliness.

Lady Keswick waved a beringed hand. 'Go join your fellow reprobates.'

Summarily dismissed, he joined the party watching the sport on the grass. He didn't mind being warned off. Indeed, this was where he would find his next source of amusement, not with a woman who eyed him with disapproval even if he had seen a flicker of interest in those extraordinary brown eyes.

'Stanford,' Hapton said. 'I thought you'd gone elsewhere?' The man sounded less than pleased. He must have his eye on a morsel he feared Garth would steal. Well, that might make things a bit more interesting.

Garth greeted the languid dandy with a handshake and a raised eyebrow. 'Tracking my movements, old boy?'

'Hardly,' the other man said with a glower.

Further along the wall, a woman's head turned swiftly, her jaw dropping in dismay.

Penelope? His best friend's wife? His stomach fell away. Disappointment, disgust, anger, followed each other in swift succession. He closed the distance between them with one long stride. 'Lady Smythe. What are you doing here?'

Her green gaze beseeched him. 'I—'

Mrs Mallow, her dark eyes gleaming with malicious delight, looped an arm through Penelope's. 'She came with me.'

And that was supposed to make it better? Maria Mallow was the female equivalent of a rake and not above leading a new bride astray. Anger curled tight fingers in his gut, despite his calm expression, as he bowed to the ladies.

Mark would be devastated when he learned of her treachery. And to think, he'd actually felt a twinge of envy for his friend's obvious happiness when he'd attended their wedding a scant two months before.

Or did he have this all wrong? 'Is Mark with you?'

Auburn-haired and freckle-faced, her flush was painful to watch. 'My husband is away on business.' Anger coloured her tone. It sounded like jealousy to his practised ear.

He frowned. 'Does he know where you are?'

She stiffened and something like pain darkened her gaze. 'Mark doesn't care what I do.'

Had the blush of happiness faded so quickly? He found it hard to believe. Yet here she was, at a house renowned for high jinks among the guests.

Mrs Mallow patted Penelope's hand. 'What is sauce for the gander…' She raised a brow. 'Surely that is your motto, Forever?'

Forever was a nickname he'd earned years before. He ground his teeth. It was not his motto, though others here would claim it. Hapton, for example. Or Bannerby.

Damn Penelope. The girl was as bad as the rest of these women, but he couldn't let it go. Pretend it was of no consequence. Damn it all.

In hindsight, his earlier boredom was a hell of a lot more inviting than the prospect of persuading a recalcitrant wife to go home.

Certainly not a role he'd ever played before.