Will he unlace all of her secrets?
Former captain Bladen Read knows respectable Caroline Falkner would never look twice at an illegitimate ruffian like him. But when he's suddenly thrown into the role of her protector he discovers the undercurrent of tension runs both ways…
At first Caro tries to resist the pull of attraction, for Blade is a link to the scandalous past she buried long ago to protect her son. Although when the opportunity to explore this rake's expertise in the bedroom presents itself, temptation proves too much to resist!
Read An Excerpt from More Than A Lover (Rakes in Disgrace):
March 30th, 1820
Bladen Read, erstwhile captain of the Twenty-Fifth Hussars, stretched his legs beneath the scarred trestle table in the corner of the commons of the Sleeping Tiger. Nearby, a miserable fire struggled against the wind whistling down the chimney while the smell of smoke battled with the stink of old beer and unwashed men oozing from the ancient panelling. He might have stayed somewhere better these past five days, but it would have been a waste of limited coin he preferred to spend on decent stabling for his horses and a room for his groom. After all, it wasn’t their fault he’d been forced to tender his resignation from his regiment.
That was his fault, fair and square, for not blindly following orders. And not for the first time. It was why he’d never advanced beyond captain and never would now.
Hopefully his letter to his good friend, Charlie, the Marquess of Tonbridge, would result in an offer of employment or he’d be going cap in hand to his father. The thought made his stomach curdle.
He nodded at the elderly tapman to bring him another ale to wash down the half-cooked eggs, burnt bacon and day-old bread that served for breakfast in this establishment. Not that his rations while fighting for king and country on the Iberian Peninsula had been any better, but they also hadn’t been that much He opened The Times and placed it beside his plate. The tapman wandered over with a fresh tankard. He slapped it down on the table, the foam running down the sides and pooling in a ring around its base. His lip curled as he pointed a grimy finger at the headline—the words were stark: ‘Hunt. Guilty of Sedition’.
‘Sedition?’ the old man growled. ‘It was a massacre. There was women there. Families. It’s the damned soldiers what ought to be up on a charge.’
‘You are right.’ Blade knew, because he’d been at St Peter’s Fields. Hunt had been invited to Manchester to speak to a populace suffering from the loss of work or low wages and high prices for bread. He advocated change. What the powers-that-be had not expected were the vast numbers who would come to hear the man speak.
People had come from miles away, the women in their Sunday best, many of them wearing white, holding their children by the hand, and carrying the banners they’d stitched. They’d come to hear Hunt, a radical who was famous for his opinions and wearing a white top hat. Scared to the point of panic, the government had sent the army to break up the gathering because they had learned of the careful organisation behind the event. Curse their eyes. The crowd had been peaceful, not starting a revolution as the government claimed. Hunt had barely begun addressing the crowd from a wagon bed when the militia had charged.
The potman snorted derisively. ‘You were there then, were ye, Captain? Got a few licks in?’
Not this soldier. He had tried to turn the militia aside. As a result, he’d been deemed unfit to serve his king. His years of service had counted for nothing. Not that in hindsight he would have done anything different. Waking and asleep, he heard the screams of women and children, and the shouts of men, as the soldiers, his soldiers, charged into the crowd, laying about them with sabres as if they were on the battlefield at Waterloo. Eighteen citizens dead and over seven hundred injured, some by the sword, others trampled by horses. Just thinking about it made him feel ill.
No wonder the press had labelled it Peterloo. Britain’s greatest shame and a tarnish on the victory over the French at Waterloo a mere four years before. The potman spat into the fire. ‘The people won’t stand for it. You wait and see. They might have put Hunt in prison, but it won’t be the end of it.’
Blade’s blood ran cold. ‘I’d keep that sort of talk to yourself, man, if you know what’s good for you.’
The government had spies and agent provocateurs roaming the countryside looking for a way to justify their actions of last August and the laws they had changed to reduce the risk of revolution. The Six Acts, they were called. The radicals called it an infringement of their rights.
He swallowed his rage. At the government. At the army. At his stubborn dull-witted colonel. And most of all at himself for remaining in the service beyond the end of the war. He had wanted to fight an enemy, not British citizens.
The man gave him a narrow-eyed stare as if remembering to whom he was talking. ‘Will there be anything else, Captain?’
‘Mr and, no, thank you. Nothing else.’
‘That’ll be fourpence.’
The waiter plucked the coins Blade tossed him out of the air and sauntered back to the bar. Blade finished the ale and pushed the food aside. He had no stomach for it this morning.
Time to check on his horses. With studied movements born of hours of practice, he carefully folded the newspaper and tucked it under his left arm. It never failed to irritate how the simplest things required the utmost concentration. He donned his hat and walked out into the sharp wind of a typically grey Yorkshire spring morning.
He strolled through the winding lanes heading for the livery. As he turned on to the main street, the walk of a woman ahead of him caught his eye. A brisk, businesslike walk that did nothing to disguise the lush sensuality of her figure, even though it was wrapped in a warm woollen cloak. In his salad days, before Waterloo, he might have offered to carry her basket.
Women, young and old, loved the dash of an officer in uniform.
Well, he was no longer entitled to wear a uniform. He’d retired. Hah!
The woman stopped at a milliner’s window, revealing her profile.
Caro Falkner. Pleasure rippled through him. Desire was certainly a part of it, a hot lick deep in his gut, but there was also a lightness, a simple gladness at the sight of her. Not that the gladness would be reciprocated. She had made it quite clear she wanted no remembrances of the past. Of youthful folly, before the carnage of war had taken his hand and killed her soldier husband.
He’d met her in a small village not far from Worthing where his regiment had been stationed, but had been far too tongue-tied at her beauty to utter a word. How he had hoped, with the desperation of the very young, to ask her to stand up with him when he and his fellow officers had been invited to the village assembly. Naturally, she’d only had eyes for the older and far more charming Carothers. She’d been a delight to watch, though, as she danced and flirted her way through his more experienced companions.
These days the woman was far too prim and proper for her own good. And that made her a challenge to a man who had enjoyed the intimate company of several willing widows over the years. A challenge he had no intention of taking up because, for some reason, his very presence in a room made her uncomfortable. At Charlie and Merry’s wedding, good friends of them both, she’d been far from friendly. Tales of his rakish ways passed on by Tonbridge, no doubt. And as the daughter of a vicar, she would likely be shocked by his antecedents.
Horrified. Not even a smart new uniform would make up for such a background with a respectable woman.
He forced himself to pretend not to see her, as she had made it so obvious she would prefer. Never had he even hinted to Charlie of their past meeting. He could still see her though, in his mind’s eye, the sparkle in her eyes as she spun with her partners through the steps of every country dance that night.
He’d been fascinated.
Not that he was about to force these memories upon a woman who shied away at the sight of him.
Besides, these days he preferred the kind of woman who enjoyed a bit of danger along with her dalliance. Widows or members of the demi-monde who were not looking for any sort of permanent relationship and were honest about it. Oh, his adoptive mother had forced him into a semblance of civility, given him polish and manners, and a degree of charm to go with it, but the ladies of the ton had no trouble sensing the ruffian who lurked within.
Naturally, decent ladies avoided him like the plague.
As did Mrs Falkner.
He stepped clear of her at the same moment she turned away from the window. Their gazes clashed.
Her eyes widened in recognition. The flicker of anxiety in her eyes sent a chill down his spine, though she quickly schooled her expression into one of reserved politeness. Was it merely the response of a sensible respectable woman when faced with a man who could ruin her reputation if she wasn’t careful?
Or something else? Her reaction wasn’t a shock, he was used to respectable women distancing themselves—it was his hurt that she would do so that momentarily stole his breath.
He buried the pointless feeling of rejection and flashed her his most seductive smile. The devilment of anger taking possession of reason. He was, after all, a good friend of her employer. He lifted his hat and bowed. ‘Mrs Falkner, what an unexpected pleasure.’ The purr of seduction in his voice caused her to stiffen.
‘Captain Read?’ There was something about her soft and low voice that affected him in a very visceral Blast it, he really should have pretended he had not seen her. He did not need desire for a woman he could not have to make his day any worse. ‘Just plain Mr these days, ma’am. I hope you are well?’
Pink stained her cheekbones with a becoming blush. He remembered that about her, the way she coloured. But that was all that remained of her from before. Her ready smile and happy laughter were nowhere to be seen. Respectable widows did not smile at rogues. ‘I am well,’ she said, lifting her chin. ‘Thank you.’ She hesitated a fraction. ‘And you?’
Her politeness surprised him. He didn’t imagine she cared how he was for one single moment.
‘I, too, am well.’ He glanced around, looking for a maid or a footman. Seeing no one nearby, he frowned. ‘Are you unescorted?’
She stiffened. ‘I am quite capable of doing a little shopping without aid.’
From the icy blast of dislike coming his way, he knew she didn’t want to have anything to do with him, but he wasn’t enquiring for her sake, he was doing what his friend, Charlie, would expect of him.
And, indeed, Charlie’s new wife, Merry. With the unrest among the population at the news in the papers this morning, even a guttersnipe like him knew better than to allow a decent female to walk the streets alone. He certainly would not allow his half-sisters to do so, though they, too, would likely baulk at his He grasped the handle of the heavy-looking basket over her arm. ‘Allow me, please.’ Not really a request, though at least he had enough manners to phrase it as one. Perhaps the countess, his stepmother, had done a better job than either of them had thought.
A moment of resistance held them frozen, but her expression said that while she did not want his escort, neither did she want to make a scene in public. She let go and stepped back. ‘It is very kind of you, Captain...I mean Mr Read, but I have quite finished my errands.’
‘Then I will accompany you back to your lodgings. I assume you are staying in York overnight?’
Her eyes narrowed with suspicion, then the sensible woman sighed, knowing there was no use arguing with a determined man. ‘At the King George. I return to Skepton tomorrow.’
He transferred the basket to the crook of his right arm and, gritting his teeth, he slightly winged his left elbow. Enough for her to be able to ignore it without embarrassment for either of them. She would not be the first to refuse his injured arm.
His heart gave an odd lurch when, without a moment’s hesitation, she tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. The feel of her hand seared his skin through several layers of cloth, including her gloves. He could not remember the last time he’d felt this shaken. Foolish sentiment, no doubt. After all, a woman who went about gathering prostitutes off the streets of Skepton, as Charlie had related to him, was hardly likely to baulk at a missing hand.
Even so, it was with a sense of doom that he realised that even for such a small gesture from this woman, he would walk barefoot across hot coals.
Caro could not believe her bad luck. Or rather she could. If anything could go wrong where she was concerned, it would. She had hoped never to see Captain Read—no, Mr Read apparently, her employer’s friend—ever again, after the Tonbridges’ wedding was over and done. Indeed, she had hoped she would not. For Tommy’s sake. Of all the people she had met in her life, he was one of the few who might guess at her secret. At her shame.
She still did not know whether he recalled their meeting years ago. The uncertainty made her heart flutter wildly, as did the way he regarded her as if she was some sort of tasty treat.
‘Who accompanies you on this shopping trip of yours?’ he asked, his voice teasing, but also concerned, when he had no right to be concerned for her welfare.
If she kept her answers brief and to the point, hopefully he would take the hint and be on his way.
‘No one. Merry is in London with Tonbridge, who was called to attend his father’s sickbed.’ Caro tried to ignore the sense of abandonment that had plagued her since her friend’s marriage. The same feeling she had experience when her father had turned her out of his house. Yet it was not the same thing at all. She and Merry remained friends and correspondents.
She had heard nothing from her family since the day she had left.
While she did not look at Mr Read, she sensed his gaze on her face. Sharp. Assessing. ‘You travelled to York alone?’ he asked.
The note of disapproval in his voice added to her discomfort. Her father’s voice had held exactly that note when one had a smut on one’s nose, or had misplaced one’s gloves and kept him waiting. Instinctively her chin came up, the way it had so often in her girlhood, generally leading to further admonishment. What was it about this man that affected her so, when she had worked so hard on perfecting a calm demeanour? ‘I drove here in the Tonbridge carriage with his lordship’s coachman.’
He made a scoffing sound in the back of his throat that he then tried to disguise as a cough. ‘Have you not read the newspapers, Mrs Falkner? The north is up in arms about this latest idiotic verdict—’ He grimaced.
Mouth agape, she stared up at his face, once more overwhelmed by the height and breadth of him. In her mind she kept seeing him as the gangly young ensign from nine years before with large ears and a hook of a nose hanging at the fringes of his fellow officers. The skinny fellow on the cusp of manhood was gone, replaced by a hard-faced, hard-eyed man who had grown into his aristocratic features. He’d become handsome in the way of a battle-hardened warrior, a face of clean lines and sharp angles. ‘I read the
newspapers,’ she said with hauteur. It was difficult to look down one’s nose at a man who was as tall as he, but if he got the message that she wanted nothing to do with him, it was worth the attempt. ‘None of that has anything to do with my trip to York for household supplies.’
His expression darkened. ‘A woman driving across Yorkshire’s moors in a lozenged carriage with no more than an elderly coachman to guard her is hardly safe. Don’t think your gender will protect you. No one was safe at St. Peter’s Field. Men, women and children died and those wielding the swords were related to half the nobility in Britain.’
She recoiled at the underlying bitterness in his voice. ‘You speak as if you have first-hand knowledge.’
His mouth tightened. ‘I was there.’
‘Is that why you resigned your commission?’
His jaw flickered. He turned his face away, looking off into the distance. ‘In part.’
Clearly he did not welcome further interrogation.
Nor did she have any reason to engage him in conversation. Quite the opposite. ‘I am sure there can be no danger to me. Tonbridge made his disgust of last August’s events quite clear.’
They crossed the square in front of York Minster, its spires pushing into the clouds like medieval lances.
He stopped, forcing her to stop, too, and look at his grave expression. ‘Nevertheless I will escort you on your return journey as Tonbridge would expect.’
His autocratic manner sent anger spurting through her veins, despite that he was right. Tonbridge was exceedingly protective of his wife and, by association, her erstwhile companion. And it was not just the recent troubles that made him so. The establishment of the Haven for Women and Mothers with Children in Need had been highly unpopular
with the wealthier of Skepton’s residents. Until Tonbridge had taken up their cause both her life and Merry’s had been at risk.
‘It is most kind of you, Mr Read. However, rather than put you to such trouble, I will hire outriders for the journey back.’
His face hardened as if he had received some sort of insult. ‘If that is your preference, then please ensure you do.’
She had not intended an insult, but surely he had better things, more important things to do than serve as her escort? She bit back the urge to apologise. If he was insulted, he would likely leave her in peace. The longer she spent in his company, the more likely he was to remember he had met her before. She’d seen the puzzlement in his eyes as he tried to figure out why she looked familiar on the occasion of their first meeting. She had no wish to remind him or to reminisce about old times. Or old acquaintances. She
repressed a shudder. And she certainly did not want him anywhere near her son.
He started walking again. He had long legs and towered over her by a good eight inches, but he adjusted his stride to the length of her steps. It was the mark of a well-bred gentleman. Or a man intent on making a good impression.
‘How is Thomas?’ he asked, to her surprise and trepidation. ‘Is he with you?’
It was difficult not to be pleased at his recollection of her boy, when in truth she should have been terrified. Why would a man who was barely an acquaintance care about the whereabouts of her son?
Was it merely commonplace conversation, or a threat of exposure, or simply a way of worming his way into her good graces? Whatever his motive, she did not dare show her worry, so she kept her voice calm.
Her answer factual. ‘He is well, thank you.’
Tommy had been impressed by Captain Read in his uniform when they had met. The boy had talked of how his father would have been just such a soldier.
Subsequently, she had done her best to keep Captain Read at a distance in case he recalled the past she had tried to keep hidden.
‘You should think of him if you will not think of yourself. He would suffer greatly, if anything happened to you,’ he said.
Her blood chilled. ‘Are you trying to frighten me?’ It would not be the first time a man had tried using intimidation to get what he wanted. ‘It is not well done of you. I can manage to find my own way back to my hotel from here.’ She could see the dashed There was frost in his voice when he replied, ‘What is it about my company you object to, Mrs Falkner? Have I done something you find offensive?’
Her words had hurt him. It was a vulnerability she would not have expected from a man who carried himself with such confidence, but he had asked and she was all for speaking the truth. ‘I am a respectable woman, Mr Read.’ A respect that had been hard-won in a town like Skepton where the community closed ranks against outsiders. ‘It will not serve my reputation to be seen junketing around with a single gentleman, no matter how worthy he may be. Or how well connected.’ She had no wish to be the subject of gossip or idle speculation, for Thomas’s sake, as much as for her own.
The hard muscles beneath her hand tensed, though his face gave nothing of his thoughts away.
He was like a coiled spring. A weapon ready to fire.
Perhaps if she insulted him enough, he would walk off in a huff. Let her escape from his unsettling presence. The flutters of attraction she felt each time he looked at her with those amazingly piercing hazel eyes were scrambling her thoughts. Was it because Merry and Charlie had deliberately warned her about his reputation as a ladies’ man prior to their wedding?
Could it be her tendency to wickedness leading her astray? After all these years? Certainly not. She would never become one of his conquests. Or let him expose her secrets. She dropped her hand from his. He did not take the hint. With grim determination, he walked her all the way to the hotel entrance and handed off her basket to the footman waiting at the door with an easy grace that belied his missing left hand. After five years, he must be used to it, she supposed, but still something inside her ached at the
sight of the sleeve pinned at the wrist.
Not that his injury made him any less of a man.
Indeed, he had the sort of lethal masculinity that warned the unwary to be careful unless they disturb a sleeping beast. And warned a woman to guard her ‘What time did you intend to set out for Skepton tomorrow?’ he asked in a surprisingly mild tone given the heat of anger in his gaze. Or perhaps it wasn’t anger at all, but something far more risky. Chills ran across her skin. Pleasant little prickles.
She ignored her body’s reaction. ‘I asked Mr Garge to have the coach at the door at eight. The haberdasher has promised to deliver the rest of my supplies later this afternoon. I will be home by mid-afternoon.’
He doffed his hat and bowed. ‘Then I wish the rest of your day is pleasant and bid you good day.’ He marched off, his bearing very much that of a soldier.
Dashing and handsome, in or out of uniform. Her skin warmed. Her body tingled in unmentionable places she thought she had firmly under control. The man was without doubt one of the most attractive she’d ever met. The kind of man...
Blast. How could she entertain such thoughts when she knew the danger of the smallest indiscretion? She had spent years creating an aura of respectability.
Fought hard to maintain it, too. She wasn’t about to throw her life away for the sake of a handsome man.
Especially not one of the ilk of Mr Read, who, while not legitimate, had an earl for a father. For Tommy’s sake, she could not afford to be noticed by anyone with connections to the beau monde. Not if she wanted to keep her son by her side.
If Mr Read should ever put two and two together she might well lose her son.
Charlie’s timing was abysmal. The next morning, sitting in the snug at the Sleeping Tiger, Blade stared at the letter that had, according to his groom, Ned, arrived in the first post. It was exactly what he had hoped for and the worst possible news. If he had known about this yesterday, before he’d met Mrs Falkner, it might not now feel so damnably uncomfortable. Mrs Falkner was not going to be pleased.
Understatement of the year.
She might, he mused, even think he was lying to get his own way in the matter of her requiring an Too bad. Charlie had offered him a position, albeit temporary, and he intended to do all he could to prove his friend’s trust justified. He needed this job. If he was successful, he might even be able to hold up his head and meet his father’s gimlet gaze after the Peterloo débâcle.
Serving in the army had offered him the chance to leave his unfortunate beginnings behind and he’d mucked it up. No doubt the earl would already have received word of his failure. This offer he’d received from Charlie was a chance to start again without the need to ask his father for assistance. Something he hated. He certainly wasn’t going to let Mrs Falkner’s dislike keep him from honest employment.
He glanced at the dingy face of the case clock in the corner. ‘Damn.’ It was gone nine, well after the time she said she’d depart. Still, ladies were often late. Or at least his sisters often were. As were his previous inamoratas. Lost hair ribbons and misplaced gloves generally delayed a lady’s departure by more than an hour or two.
Unfortunately, Mrs Falkner did not strike him as a lady subject to missing articles. She was far too efficient or Charlie would not have left her in charge of the charitable establishment Merry and Mrs Falkner had founded. A home for fallen women and their children they called the Haven.
He downed a cup of scalding hot coffee and called for his shot. He’d have to hurry if he was going to catch Mrs Falkner before she left her hotel. The innkeeper ambled over with his bill. ‘Thought we was to have t’pleasure of your company a few more days, Mr Read.’
‘Change of plans.’ Blade skimmed a glance down the bill and found it accurate.
‘You’ll be careful on the road,’ the landlord said. ‘I hear there are rabble-rousers going around the countryside stirring up sentiments as ought not to be stirred.’
‘Do you know any specifics?’ he asked casually as he got to his feet.
‘Not me, sir. I hear things. Mutters and so forth.
Hardly helpful. ‘Have your man come up for my valise in ten minutes.’ Ten minutes he could hardly afford, but it would take him that long to pack without help from Ned. ‘Have a note taken round to Shaw’s Livery for me, would you please?’
Ned would have his horse ready by the time he arrived.