ONCE A RAKE, ALWAYS A RAKE! Gentle Reader, always remember that-and pray that I, Meredith Merriweather, heed my own warning. For I find myself caught in a scheme to prove that the notorious former scoundrel Lord Lansing, Alexander Lamont, is just as wicked as he always has been. To complete my cautionary guidebook, which will save young ladies from suffering at the hands of cads, I am dangling my very self as bait! Now the insufferable rogue believes that I am the woman for him. Even more scandalous, my great-aunts-the matchmaking Featherton sisters-are aiding his outrageous pursuit instead of encouraging the respectable gentleman I am determined to marry. I admit that Alexander's charming smile and laughing eyes are most intriguing. But good heavens, must I always be tempted to give my heart to the type of man no proper woman should trust, let alone love? (80,000 words)
In Caskie's breezy Regency romance, Meredith Merriweather is determined to warn other innocents by penning A Lady's Guide to Rakes. Her current object of study, Lord Lansing, has cut a swath through the hearts of young misses, lonely wives and merry widows. He claims he's reformed, and common wisdom is that reformed rakes make the best husbands, but Meredith intends to reveal there's no such thing. When her spying lands her literally on top of him, a connection is made that neither one expects nor wants but proves impossible to resist. Caskie's decision to make Lansing a frequent and unapologetic adulterer, have Meredith hire a courtesan to seduce single and married men for her rake research, and allow Meredith's elderly aunts to try to force the couple into marriage by drugging them and putting them in the same bed;all without much introspection on the morality of such actions;may strike some readers as daring, others as discomforting. While there's little character depth, this meringue of a romance should satisfy most looking for a fast poolside read.
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August 31, 2005
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Excerpt from A Lady's Guide to Rakes by Kathryn Caskie
It is inadvisable to approach a rake without first observing him from a distance, where his seductive charms cannot overwhelm a lady's gentle sensibilities.
The maddening heat from the aged balloon's fire sent sweat trickling beneath Meredith Merriweather's corset. Still, she held the lens of her spyglass ever firm and focused squarely on the impeccably dressed gentleman strolling along the bank of the rippling Serpentine, some forty feet below.
"Oh, dash it all, can't you bring the basket any lower?" she shouted to her pilot as she momentarily lowered the spyglass. "Look there, he's getting away!"
"I'll see what I can do, Miss Merriweather, but I'll not be promisin' a thing," the Irishman droned, and Meredith was sure she saw him roll his eyes at her.
Movement caught her notice then and abruptly she lifted the glass to watch a sable-haired woman who approached from the north. "Go to it, Giselle," Meredith urged beneath her breath. "Work your charms."
Meredith held her breath and waited. Surely the man would not be able to resist the French courtesan's dark beauty or the seductive sway of her hips. No man could. Giselle's allure was studied. Perfect.
A huge onion-shaped shadow fell over the gentleman as the balloon passed between him and the sun. He turned and, cupping the edge of his hand over his brow, peered upward, squinting at the balloon's massive silhouette.
Meredith's muscles tensed briefly, but then relaxed. Even if he saw her, she reasoned, there was nothing to fear. Balloon ascensions in Hyde Park were commonplace these days, and seeing a great floating orb, while extraordinary, was certainly nothing to warrant suspicion.
She turned the glass on Giselle once more. "Oh no." Why was she beckoning him toward the trees? Meredith whipped the spyglass from her eye. Hadn't she bade Giselle to stay to the footpath-in plain view? Meredith jerked her head around to be sure the balloon's pilot understood the urgency of the situation. "We're going to lose sight of them! Bring us lower, please."
The leather-faced pilot stared back at her with his queer, unblinking, insectlike eyes. Why wouldn't he do as she asked? She had paid him four times his normal fare, after all!
"Beggin' yer pardon, miss." He shot a nervous glance over the edge of the basket's frayed woven lip. "But another few feet and we'll be sittin' in the oak tops-or worse. How badly do you need to spy on that bloke? Is it worth crashin' through the bloomin' branches?"
Meredith gasped at his effrontery. "How dare you accuse me of spying! I am conducting a scientific experiment- one that you, sirrah, are about to ruin."
Tipping her gaze over the edge of the basket, she peered at the unfurling leaves on the jutting branches just below, then turned and looked hard at the impertinent pilot. "We have at least six feet to spare. Drop her three, please."
With a resigned shake of his capped head, the pilot waved to his tether handler, who stood squinting up at them from the ground below, and raised three stubby fingers.
The basket jerked and Meredith's hip struck the side hard. "Thank you," she admonished, leveling a narrowed eye at the pilot, who was working quite diligently to conceal the amused grin on his lips.
Spreading her feet wider for balance, Meredith rested her throbbing hip against the foremost corner of the basket. This was the closest she'd ever been to London's most notorious rake, and even though she floated above the treetops, it was still too close for her comfort. Already a lacy red rash was working its way across her chest, and as she nervously scratched at it, she noticed that her palms were damp too.
Having had her own heart and reputation shattered by one of his ilk just two years past, Meredith knew what sort of damage Alexander Lamont and his kind were capable of wreaking.
She rested her elbows on the lip of the basket rail and raised the glass to her eye, trailing her view down the gentleman's well-shaped form.
My word, even from this height, the rake's appeal was plain to her. His jaw was firm, angular and lightly gilded from the sun. He was taller than most men, certainly. His muscular shoulders were broad, his waist trim and-oh dear. Swallowing hard, Meredith hurried the spyglass downward so that only his thighs, his delightfully sculpted thighs, were in her sight. She had to admit, without question he was the perfect physical specimen of the human male.
Still, if tearoom chatter was to be believed-and when was it not?-he was also the perfect example of a rogue . . . and the absolute worst sort at that. His name had been linked with scores of ladies, from society misses to theater chorus girls. This, however, was not what elevated him to the veriest pinnacle of rakedom. Being caught in bed with the young wife of a highly respected minister in the House of Commons had given the rotter that distinction.
Not for a moment did Meredith believe, as others seemed to, that Alexander, the licentious Lord Lansing, had given up his rakish ways and truly reformed. It wasn't possible. And Meredith would prove it by observing Giselle's progress in bringing out the rake's true nature.
Lud, now Giselle was leading him toward a bench beneath a massive oak!
"Please, just a little lower," Meredith implored the pilot.
He shook his head solemnly. "Not wise." A growl pressed through Meredith's lips as she crouched down to the flooring and removed the last four gold coins from her reticule. Rising, she pressed back her shoulders and made her final plea. "Another guinea per foot you manage to lower this contraption."
The pilot hesitated for nearly a full minute, but it was clear by the tattered condition of the basket and the way he kept licking his weathered lips that he could already taste the money.
With her thumb, Meredith moved the coins around in her palm, making them clink together irresistibly. "Oh, very well. Four feet," the pilot called out to the man below. "Not a finger more."
As if hearing the pilot's instructions, Alexander Lamont looked up at the great red balloon, which now hovered only thirty feet above ground.
Meredith quickly hid her spyglass inside the basket and gazed out over the Serpentine, as if studying the waterbirds on its glistening surface. Suddenly she felt a horrifying scraping sensation beneath her feet.
The basket was descending into the treetops! Her gaze shot upward in time to see a limb gouge the red bulb of fabric, tearing savagely into it. There was a deafening flatulent outpouring of air and the basket lurched and fell. Sharp protruding branches sprouted up around her.
With a frightened squeal, Meredith dropped low and cowered down deep inside the basket, protecting her face with her hands.
"The skin's been punctured. She's comin' down." The pilot's voice was thin with fear, heightening her own terror.
"Hang on!" "Hang on?" Meredith whipped her hands from her eyes and frantically searched the innards of the basket. There was nothing to grip. "To what, sir?" "The rail, you twit. The rail!"
Crawling on her knees toward the pilot, Meredith slid her hands up the rough-hewn wicker side, scrabbled for the rail's lip and clung to it.
But the shift in weight was too abrupt. The basket, already deep inside the tree canopy, tipped to the side, pouring her out of its pot like a last drop of tea.
Her back struck a thick limb and pain sucked the breath from her lungs. She gasped for air as she slipped from the branch and plummeted downward at a horrific speed, branches tearing at her gown and scraping her tender skin.
Meredith registered the wide-eyed shock in Alexander Lamont's eyes as she careened toward him. Heaven help me! She squeezed her eyes shut.
Bloody hell. His ribs were cracked. Maybe his spine too. At the very least his new blue cutaway coat was ruined. He was lying in the dirt, after all. What in Hades had happened?
Alexander lifted his head from a clod of grass and focused his eyes on a most intriguing sight-a pair of bare female thighs traversing his middle.
Damn it all. No sooner had he vowed to remain celibate, to remain the veriest picture of decorum until marriage- or his father's passing-when women bloody well started dropping from the sky.
Lying flat on his back, Alexander shoved a heavy branch from his shoulder and blew at the dew-dampened leaves sticking to his cheek. Every muscle smarted.
Slowly he raised himself onto one elbow and marveled at the shapely woman who lay across his body in a crumpled mass of dark blue silk.
She wasn't moving, and for a clutch of seconds, Alexander was quite certain that she had gone and died right there atop him. But then he noticed the rapid rise and fall of her chest, and was able to breathe easier himself.
"Miss?" He gave his hip a bit of a buck. Still, she didn't budge. "You've cut off the flow of blood to my legs. I say, can you move?"
No answer. This was looking worse by the moment. He raised his right hand and found it caught in a fine web of copper ringlets. Unable to disentangle himself, he finally wrenched his fingers through the hair, but his golden signet ring caught and snagged a long tendril.
He heard a groan, and suddenly he was looking into the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. Glaring blue eyes, the color and hardness of polished sapphires.
"Sir, do you intend to rip every strand from my head, or might you leave me a few?"
He didn't reply. He knew better, for there was no right answer. Women were shrewd that way.
Besides, her delicate hands, the color of sweet cream, were already working to free her hair. When finally liberated, she pushed up from his chest-with unnecessary force, Alexander decided, for at once unbelievable shards of pain knifed through his ribs.
Leaning back on her boot heels, she stared down at him, wincing ever so slightly as she bit into her pink full lower lip.
Framed by vibrant flaming hair, her oval face seemed unnaturally pale, save a scarlet scrape traversing her left cheek.
"Can you stand?" Her voice was soft with concern now and she lifted a hand to him. But there was anger in her eyes. Indeed, as well as something more palpable. Loathing?
Planting his freed palm in the soft earth, Alexander raised himself to a painful sitting position, willing himself not to grimace.
A look of relief eased across the young woman's delicate features. "I . . . I thank you for . . . cushioning my fall." As she spoke, she rested her thumbs at either side of her waist and from the tentative movement of her hands, he realized she was pressing her fingers to her spine. She sucked in a pained gasp. A twig snapped and she raised her eyes to a point behind Alexander's head. Then he heard his new French acquaintance's lilting voice: "You and your pilot are lucky to have been spared, mademoiselle.
Look at the balloon." Alexander glanced up into the guts of the oak, where he saw a large wicker basket skewered by a thick limb.
There was a sudden thrash of leaves and a weatherworn pilot dropped down from a wide branch and thudded down onto a patch of damp earth nearby.
A burly fellow with a coil of rope looped around his shoulder and armpit, whom Alexander took to be the man's tether handler, rushed forward through the trees, panting with exertion. "Is everyone w-well?"
"Aye, but we were just damned lucky." The pilot turned an angry gaze on the fiery-haired lass. "I told ye we were too low," he snarled, then shook a wild finger at the basket and the deflating balloon blanketing the tree's soaring canopy. "And look at my Betsy now! Ye owe me, miss, owe me quite a lot!"
The young lady turned her frantic blue eyes from the pilot to Alexander.
"I . . . I . . . Oh dear." She brought a hand to her cheek, where three tiny beads of blood oozed up from the scarlet scrape; then her eyes turned back in her head and she crumpled back down atop him.
Forgetting his own pain, Alexander cradled her limp body in his arms. He looked from her wan features, rouged with that smear of blood upon one cheek, then gazed up to the pilot. "Do you know her name? Where she lives?"
"'Er name's Miss Merriweather," the pilot offered. "Hails from Hanover Square or somewhere thereabouts." "Mon Dieu, is she going to die?"
Alexander looked up at the Frenchwoman as she collected, then handed over, what he took to be the miss's belongings.
"No, my dear. But I fear she requires assistance without delay." Digging into his coat pocket, he fingered a cool coin and flipped it to his lovely new acquaintance.
"This should see you home. I am sorry that I cannot help you with the stone in your boot, as you requested."
"Merci, monsieur." The dark-eyed mademoiselle caught the coin and, with a grin, stuffed it into her bounteous cleavage. "And do not worry yourself about my boot. The stone will dislodge itself." She flashed a coquettish smile his way. "But then, perhaps it won't. Maybe you will be so kind as to come to ten Portman Square later this eve and check for me, oui?"
Alexander grinned, but kept to his task and lifted the pale young lady into his arms. Stepping over the clutter of broken limbs and leaf-sprigged branches, he started down the footpath.
"Monsieur, where are you taking her?" the Frenchwoman called out, a tinge of worry licking her thickly accented words.
"Home," Alexander shouted back over his shoulder. "I'm taking her home."
Home, he'd said. Sweet heavens, Meredith only hoped he meant her home-and not his own beastly lair. Lud, what a pickle she'd be in then.
As he strode quickly forward, his muscled arm excruciatingly tight around her sore back, Meredith held her eyes tightly closed and continued feigning unconsciousness.
Yes, it was deceitful, but there was no help for it. Only, she wished she had been brave enough to fling herself onto her bruised back, instead of straight onto Lord Lansing's middle again.
But the balloon pilot was about to expose her experiment, wasn't he? She had to do something to stop him, and, well, fainting was the first method that came to her mind. Viola, her great-aunt, a kindred spirit if ever there was one, used this method whenever necessary and with great success. So why shouldn't she?
Of course, Meredith hadn't taken the time to think what events her fainting episode might set into motion.
And now here she was in the arms of the most dangerous man in London, being . . . Oh no. She sniffed the air and cringed inwardly. Anything but that.
Horses. She smelled horses. She heard the grunts and scuffles of the beasts. Her heart began to pound a terrified tattoo inside her chest.
He'd taken her to a stable, of all places! Well, this little folly of hers had gone on long enough. She must end it this very instant!
In a most calculated manner, she allowed her head to loll lazily forward, until it struck a heavy button. Time for a murmur.
Add a little sigh. Lovely, lovely.
Eyelids flicker and . . . open. Oh hellfire.
As she lifted her lids, Meredith found herself staring into dark mossy green eyes, ringed with a tea-hued band.
The combination was not unique. Meredith was sure that she had seen it before. But somehow the welcoming warmth of these particular eyes made her want to plunge into their depths and wade there a while longer.
"I see you've come back to me." Lord Lansing's lips lifted and he leveled her with a smile that made her blood fizz and her body go all jellylike.
A jolt of nervous realization skated through her limbs. Heavens! It was happening. She was being taken in by a rake-again!
Well, this time she wasn't about to give herself over so easily. The humiliation and heartache had nearly killed her before. But it shan't again!
Meredith glared up at him through narrowed eyes. "Sir, I implore you. Return me to my feet at once." She snapped her fingers twice, as she'd seen her great-aunt do when the servants were dawdling, but this only earned her an amused grin.
"'Ere ye are, my lord. Brushed him down for ye, just how ye like."
Meredith turned her head to see a stable hand leading forth the most gargantuan horse she'd ever seen. Its black hide gleamed almost blue, and even Meredith, who possessed an unnatural wariness-in truth, a horrible fear- of the beasts, had to admit this one was . . . well, rather spectacular.
In the next instant, Lord Lansing raised her up, as if she were no more than a feather (which, with her heavy thighs and plump bottom, Meredith knew was far from reality) and settled her upon the great equine's back. "N-no!" Her hands shot outward and her fingers frantically clawed Lord Lansing's sleeves. Her lips were quivering now.
"There, there, miss. You shan't ride alone." With that, he cuffed his foot in the stirrup, swung a well-shaped leg over the horse's back and came down on the saddle behind her. Then the rake scooted close and pulled her tightly against him.
Against him. Yes, that part of him. Why, against her thigh she could feel every heated . . . curve through those tight deerskin breeches men favored these days.
Heat washed across Meredith's face, and given the milky whiteness of her countenance, she knew her cheeks probably glowed like hot embers in a hearth.
As he nudged the horse into a trot, Meredith reluctantly leaned her shoulder against his broad chest, and, resting one hand on his thigh for balance, she clutched his coat with the other.
He smiled down at her and sat up straighter in the saddle. It was at this moment that Meredith noticed his hair. Judging from the bit she could see beneath his hat, it was every bit as black as the horse's swishing tail.
"Hanover Square, is that correct?" The deep tone of his voice rumbled inside Meredith's chest, sending a vibration clear through to her . . . Well, never mind.
"I am quite capable of walking, sir. So if you'll just let me-"
"Wouldn't think of it, Miss Merriweather. I've made it a practice. Whenever a woman tumbles out of the sky into my lap, I always see her home to the safety of her family."
He turned his mesmerizing gaze upon her. "And the name is Lord Lansing."
"I know who you are." Meredith cocked her head and met his gaze. "All of London-those of the gentler sex, anyway, know you. You, Lord Lansing, are London's most notorious rogue."
He laughed at that. "I fear you have me confused with another."
"I daresay, I do not." "Ah, but you do. The Lord Lansing you refer to no longer exists. For you see, Miss Merriweather, I have reformed."
Meredith snickered at his gall. "Well, nevertheless, given your former reputation, and my gentle status as an unmarried woman, it would be imprudent of me to remain in your company. So if you will just stop and let me down-"
"I do apologize, Miss Merriweather, but I will see you to your home. Remember, women falling from the sky?" He poked a single finger into the air. "It is a rule with me. I cannot divert."
There was laughter in his voice, and in any other circumstance-and were he any other man-she might have smiled. But here she was, intimately pressed against London's worst rake, riding toward Mayfair. And there was nothing she could do about it!
"When you were in the balloon, I could hear you urging the pilot into the trees. What were you doing up there?"
"W-what?" As Meredith searched her mind for a plausible excuse, the rake reached beneath his coat and withdrew something brass. The minute the sun glinted on the lens, the blood inside her veins stopped flowing and, for an instant, she was sure she really would faint. "This telescope was beside you. Were you perhaps spying?"
"C-certainly not!" As the horse trotted along, the pain in Meredith's back intensified, along with her anxiety. "I was . . . bird-watching. Yes, and I thought I saw a very rare species in the trees."
His lip twitched upward. "Really? I have done a bit of bird-watching in my day. What species do you mean?" Heat pulsed in Meredith's earlobes. "The . . . um . . . the scarlet rogue . . . finch." Hesitantly she glanced up at him and caught the last remnants of a grin.
"I can't say that I am familiar with the rogue finch." "Well, as I said, it is quite rare." Meredith turned her gaze and began to study, with utmost fascination, the narrow row house they were passing.
Heavens! Did she just see Lady Ashton peering through her parlor window at them? The last thing she needed was to be seen with the rake. Her reputation was already in the dustbin from her last encounter with such a beast. It was only her aunts' lofty standing in society that had prevented every drawing-room door from being closed in her face-even though the event that had led to her downfall was not even the least bit her own fault.
Lord Lansing passed a handkerchief to Meredith. "For your cheek."
Meredith nodded and silently pressed the linen to her face, dabbing away the blood.
"There, now I can see your pretty face." His smoldering gaze made Meredith feel rather warm. "Looks like the bleeding has stopped."
"I am not surprised. The scratches are quite minor." Meredith raised her finger. "Turn here."
Lord Lansing tugged gently at the right rein and his massive horse trotted into Hanover Square. Meredith at last felt a modicum of relief, which heightened the moment the rake stopped before number 17 and leaped from the horse.
That is, until she realized she'd been left atop the great beast, alone. Horrible memories of her five-year-old self, lying in bed for months, her broken leg painfully bound, filled her mind.
Her fingers scrabbled for the saddle's pommel and there she sat, trembling even as Lord Lansing raised his broad hands to help her down.
"Allow me to assist, Miss Merriweather. Just let go of the saddle."
Her eyes went wide in her head. "I-I . . . cannot," she stammered. The horse was going to bolt, she just knew it. Suddenly she felt his warm hands encircle her waist. "I've got you now. Just relax your fingers."
But Meredith could not reply. She was shaking so badly that her teeth were chattering inside her head. Just then, the front door opened and her two greataunts, the ladies Letitia and Viola Featherton, stepped outside.
"Gracious, gel," Letitia, her turnip-shaped aunt, quipped. "What are you doing atop that huge horse, Meredith? Come down at once!"
Still, Meredith could not manage a single word in reply. Instead, she stared mutely back at her aunts and clacked her teeth at them.