The Gamekeeper's Lady (Rakes in Disgrace)

Frederica Bracewell grew up under a cloud of shame. As an illegitimate child, she was treated by her uncle like a servant. It wasn't until she encountered the new gamekeeper that shy, innocent Frederica started to feel like a true lady….

Lord Robert Mountford had been banished by his family. After a debauched existence, he reveled in the simplicity of a gamekeeper's lifestyle. Until temptation struck! Frederica's plain appearance and stuttering speech were a far cry from the ladies of the ton, but she might just be his undoing…and unmasking!

An excerpt from The Gamekeeper's Lady:

London—1816

Lord Robert Deveril Mountford propped himself up on his elbow in his bed. He brushed aside Maggie, Lady Caldwell's waterfall of chestnut curls and kissed her creamy shoulder. 'Two weeks from now?'

Dark eyes sparkling, she cast him a dazzling smile. 'Evil one. Can't you fit me in any sooner?'

'Sorry. I'm going out of town for a few days. Hunting.'

'Furred, feathered or female?' She stood up, slipped her chemise over her head and reached for her stays.

He slapped her plump little bottom. 'Whatever comes along, naturally.' Pleasantly sated, he yawned and stretched.

Maggie sighed. 'It is time you settled down, you know.'

Robert tensed. 'Not you, too.' He leaned across to lace her stays, then pulled the silky stockings off the blue canopy over the bed and tossed them at her.

She sat to pull them over her shapely legs. 'Why not? There are all kinds of nice young things available. Take my niece. She has a reasonable dowry and her family is good quality.'

A sense of foreboding gathered like a snowball rolling downhill, larger and colder with each passing moment. It wasn't the first time one of his women had tried to inveigle herself or a member of her family into the ducal tribe, but he hadn't expected it from this one. He had thought he and Maggie were having too much fun to let familial obligations intrude.

He didn't want a wife cramping his lifestyle, even if the ducal allowance provided enough for two, which it didn't.

Dress on, Maggie went to the mirror and patted her unruly curls. 'Just look at this mess. Caldwell will never believe I was at Lady Jeffries's for tea.' She gathered the scattered pins from the floor and tried to bring some order to her tresses.

Naked, he rose to his feet and stood behind her. Her eyes widened in the glass, the heat of desire returning.

He picked up the hairbrush, all at once disturbingly anxious for her to be gone. 'Let me.' With a few firm strokes, he tamed the luxuriant brown mane, twisted it into a neat knot at the back of her head, pinned it and teased out a few curls around her face. 'Will that do?'

A lovely lush woman still in her prime and wasted on her old husband, she turned and laughed up at him. 'My maid doesn't arrange it half as well. If you ever need a position as a lady's maid, I will be pleased to provide a recommendation.'

He gazed at her beautiful face, then brushed her lips with his mouth. 'Thank you. For everything.'

He liked Maggie. Too bad she had to bring up the subject of marriage. He bent to retrieve her shoes and she sat on the stool. As he put them on her small feet, he caressed her calf one last time. A faint sense of regret washed through him. Too faint.

She sighed and ran her fingers through his hair.

The clock in the hall struck four.

'Oh, botheration,' she said, jumping to her feet. She took another quick peek in the glass. 'I think I will pass muster.' Her trill of laughter rang around the room.

He stood up with a wry smile. Maggie always maintained such good spirits. She never indulged in tantrums or fits of jealousy about his other women. She'd been the perfect liaison. Until now.

He'd send a token tomorrow, a discreet little diamond pin with a carefully worded message. No fool, Maggie. She'd understand.

She reached up and cupped his cheek with her palm. 'One of these days some beautiful young thing is going to capture that wicked heart of yours and you'll be lost to me and all the other naughty ladies of the fon, mark my words.'

Too bad she couldn't leave well enough alone. He caught her fingers and pressed them to his lips. 'What? Be tied to just one woman when there are so many to enjoy?'

'You are a bad man,' she said. 'And I adore you.'

She whirled around in a rustle of skirts, a cloud of rose perfume and sex. She opened the door and dashed down the stairs to her waiting carriage.

Yes, Robert thought, he would miss her a great deal. Now whom did he have waiting in the wings to fill his Tuesday afternoons? A knotty, but interesting problem. The new opera dancer at Covent Garden had thrown him a lure last week. A curvy little armful with come-hither eyes. And yet, somehow, the thought of the chase didn't stir his blood.

It wouldn't be much of a chase. Perhaps he should look around a little more. Looking was half the fun.

He whistled under his breath as he readied himself for an evening at White's.

Kenf—1816

It was almost perfect. Wasn't it? She just wished she could be sure. In the library's rapidly fading daylight, Frederica Bracewell narrowed her eyes and compared her second drawing of a sparrow to the one in the book. The first one she'd attempted was awful. A five-year-old would have done better. Drawn with her right hand. She sighed. It didn't matter how hard she tried, right-handed she was hopeless.

Devil's spawn. An echo of Cook's harsh voice hissed in her ear. Good-for-naught bastard. She rubbed her chilled hands together and held the second drawing up to the light. It was the best thing she'd done. But was it good enough?

The door opened behind her. She jumped to her feet. Heat rushed to her hairline. Heart beating hard, she turned, hiding the drawings with her body.

'Only me, miss,' Snively, the Wynchwood butler, said. A big man, with a shock of white hair and a fierce bulldog face, but his brown eyes twinkled as he carried a taper carefully across the room and lit the wall sconces.

Her heart settled back into a comfortable rhythm.

'I didn't realise you were working in here this afternoon or I would have had William light the fire,' the butler said.

'I'm not c-c-cold,' she said, smiling at one of her few allies at Wynchwood. She didn't want him losing his position by lighting unnecessary fires.

She picked up her rag with a wince. She'd completed very little of her assigned task: dusting the books. Uncle Mortimer would not be pleased.

In passing, Snively glanced at the pictures on the table. 'This one is good,' he said, pointing at the second one. 'It looks ready to fly away. People pay for pictures like that.'

'Do you think so?'

'I do.' Snively's face hardened. 'You ought to have proper lessons instead of copying from books. You've a talent.'

Always so supportive. Sometimes she imagined the starchy butler was her father. It might have been better if he was. Who knew what kind of low man the Wynchwood Whore had bedded.

'It is not s-seemly for a woman to d-draw for money,' she said quietly, 'but I would love to go to Italy and see the great art of Europe. Perhaps even s-study with a drawing teacher.'

His mouth became a thin straight line. 'So you should.'

'Lord Wynchwood would never hear of it. It would be far too expensive.'

Snively frowned. 'If you'll excuse me saying so, the wages you've saved his lordship by serving as housekeeper these past many years would pay for a dozen trips to Italy.'

'Only my uncle's generosity keeps me here, Mr Snively. He could just as easily have left me at the workhouse.'

He glowered. 'Your turn will come, miss. You mark my words. It will.'

She'd never heard the butler so vehement. She glanced over her shoulder at the door. 'I beg you not to say anything to my uncle about these.' She gestured at the drawings.

'I wouldn't dream of it, miss. You keep it up. One day your talent will be recognised. I can promise it.'

She smiled. 'You are such a d-dear man.'

The library door slammed back.

Frederica jumped. Her heart leaped into her throat. 'Uncle M-M-Mortimer.' The words came out in a horrible rush.

The imperturbable Snively slid the book over her drawings and turned around with his usual hauteur. 'Good evening, Lord Wynchwood.'

Uncle Mortimer, his wig awry on his head, his cheeks puce, marched in. 'Nothing better to do than pass the time with servants, Frederica? Next you'll be hobnobbing with the stable boy, the way your mother did.'

Beside her Snively drew himself up straighter.

She trembled. She hated arguments. 'N-n-n—'

'No?' the old man snapped. 'Then Snively is a figment of my imagination, is he?'

'My lord,' Snively said in outraged accents, 'I was lighting the candles, as I always do at this time. I found Miss Bracewell dusting the books and stopped to help.'

'I'm not chastising you, Snively. My niece is the one I need to keep in check.' Frederica wasn't surprised at her uncle's about face. A butler of Snively's calibre was hard to come by these days.

'S-s-s—' she started.

'Sorry? You are always sorry. It is not good enough.' He frowned. 'Didn't you hear me ringing?'

She took a quick breath. 'N-no, Uncle. You asked me to d-d-dust the books in here. I d-d-did not hear your bell.'

'Well, listen better, gel. I've some receipts to be copied into the account book. I want them all finished by supper time.'

Frederica hid her shudder. Hours of copying numbers into columns and rows. Trying to make them neat and tidy while not permitted to use anything but her right hand. Her shoulders slumped. 'Yes, Uncle.'