LADY ROSE'S SECRET (EBOOK)
LADY ROSE'S SECRET (EBOOK)
DARING CHARADES (BOOK 2) EBOOK
Marriage was not the intended outcome when loyal and determined Miss Rose Chesterfield made a wager with London’s most eligible rake not to call in a debt that would ruin her family.
Ashley Delacroix, Viscount Rampton is practised at resisting the lures of scheming debutantes to get him to the altar, which is why he only consorts with beautiful widows and willing matrons.
When irresistible Lady Chesterfield indicates she’s prepared to barter her wares for the short time she’s in England in return for not calling in a ticklish debt, Rampton eagerly sets up the perfect seduction.
But Lady Chesterfield is not what she seems and Rampton’s anger at being honour-bound to offer her matrimony is equalled only by his anger at the lengths to which Miss Chesterfield will go not to marry him.
Rose, now married to the man who’s enthralled her from the moment she arrived in London, is determined to prove her worth to her new husband.
But her beautiful, scheming sister-in-law Helena – the real Lady Chesterfield – is furious that Rose has ruined her plans for happiness a second time.
She’s intent on orchestrating the perfect poetic justice she believes Rose deserves.
And a husband full of mistrust with a penchant for beautiful matrons is just the tool for revenge she needs.
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‘WHAT CHOICE HAVE we but to give Lord Rampton the deeds to the plantation?’ Rose stood in the doorway and sent her brother a withering look before focusing her contempt upon the comatose young woman upon the bed. Pointing at her accusingly, she added, ‘After all, there’s nothing else with which to pay Helena’s debt.’
Rose had never detested her sister-in-law more. Beautiful as ever, her dark hair undressed and spread out upon the pillow, Helena looked serene and innocent, her expression one of laudanum-induced contentment.
And as usual, Charles refused to accept that his wife’s irresponsibility had plunged the family into deadly peril. Kneeling at her side, he tenderly stroked Helena’s hand, his mulish stare focused on the dome of St Paul’s through the dirty windowpane rather than at his sister’s flushed and angry face.
Outside, the rattling of carriages and shrieking of street vendors filtered into the room.
Rose stamped her foot. ‘Listen to me, Charles! What are we going to do? Clearly, Helena is in no state to petition his lordship for clemency and I can’t see you bargaining with him.’
A sheen of sweat bathed Charles’s pallid brow, hinting at the pressure he was under but still he came up with the usual excuses. ‘Helena’s been unwell but she will soon recover her strength. She’s clever. She’ll know how to get out of this. We can delay tonight’s dinner… play for time,’ he muttered. Though still a young man, the lines around his mouth and the furrows across his brow were deeply etched.
He’d been handsome and carefree when he’d married Helena five years before, Rose reflected as she joined him on the threadbare rug, kneeling to reach beneath the bed for the blue glass vial, now empty, which had rolled there. Sighing as she got to her feet, she held it out. ‘This is what Helena promised never to touch again if you promised to take her to England.’ She tapped the bottle with fingers noticeably more workworn than those of the West Indies beauty whose gambling and laudanum addictions threatened their futures. ‘Well, you fulfilled your part of the bargain. Yet again, you pandered to her whims.’ Rose rolled her shoulders, adding under her breath, Perhaps it’s just as well Helena can’t attend Lord Rampton’s dinner tonight. There’s no telling how she might try to charm or cajole his lordship into reducing the debt or modifying the terms. She could make matters infinitely worse.’
Charles glanced up, as if shocked Rose could even suggest Helena might employ such tactics. ‘You know that Helena will be deeply contrite when she wakes,’ he muttered, causing Rose to swing round at the door with a harsh laugh.
‘I’ve never before heard Helena apologise for anything she’s ever done wrong,’ Rose said crisply. ‘Well, the fact is, Lord Rampton is expecting payment of the debt, if not tonight, then soon. So what shall we do? Perhaps I should accompany you to the dinner. Unlike your wife, at least I can be relied upon to be decorous and obedient.’
Charles jerked up his head. ‘You can’t possibly go, Rose!’ He looked more horrified than he had when he’d set eyes on the unconscious West Indies beauty just minutes before, and Rose almost laughed at the black humour of their predicament. Charles had status, Helena had beauty but Rose had wit and brains. Had she been the one orchestrating their precarious lives, she had no doubt they’d be in a vastly better situation. They’d certainly not be in danger of losing their only home.
‘Surely, Charles, you don’t subscribe to the notion that marriage confers some kind of magical status which I do not have, simply as your unmarried sister?’ She’d said it with irony and in jest but he remained silent, stroking the face of the unconscious woman who’d held him in thrall since the moment she’d fluttered her eyelashes at him so many years before.
A surge of rage at her brother’s weakness in allowing Helena to run roughshod over not just his life, but the lives of his two younger sisters, galvanised her resolve.
Helena would ruin them all if Rose did not act in their defence. Her mind raced over the possibilities as she hesitated by the door. ‘Lord Rampton is due to set sail for the Continent before the week is up and our visit here is for less than three months.’
Charles continued to look at her with that bovine obstinancy that had riled her since she was old enough to read faces. A thought occurred to her. ‘Why can’t I go in Helena’s place? We’ll have returned to the plantation before he’s back in England. He’ll never meet us in person again.’ Her brother’s failure to even articulate his opposition cemented her determination. Charles was weak and indecisive. Lord Rampton would almost certainly dictate terms that would be to their detriment and Charles would buckle. Suddenly her idea seemed their only salvation.
Decisively, she turned back from the door and crossed the floor, her tone wheedling as she stroked her brother’s arm. ‘It’s true that of course I can perform no useful role as your unmarried sister, Charles, but why should you dine with Lord Rampton, alone, when at least I can get the measure of him? It’s what we must do if we’re to get the extension we need to repay Helena’s debt.’
Charles didn’t move but Rose could tell he was listening. No doubt he was hoping Helena would suddenly blink open her eyes and tell him what to do, just as she had since the moment they’d met.
‘Time, Charles, is what we need,’ Rose went on, her tone still soft and conciliatory. ‘I’m certain poor Mama and Papa have a few relatives mouldering in the wings who could help with some funds but that wouldn’t be enough to cover what Helen lost to Mr Babbage the other night. Now that Lord Rampton has taken over the debt from Babbage, he’s quite within his rights to demand an immediate settlement.’ She caressed his cheek. ‘Don’t you think I’d be far more successful playing on Lord Rampton’s heartstrings than you?’
Rose could see Charles was wavering. His stubborn streak was always the final hurdle to overcome. To give in without a fight compromised the feeling that he was in charge, the young baronet, head of his household: his wife and two sisters.
She took a deep breath. ‘If I went as Helena—’
‘No! Good God, Rose, are you out of your mind?’
Rose drew herself up proudly, more determined than ever. Striving to remain calm, she countered, ‘Lord Rampton has met none of us and Helena was in masquerade when she lost to this Lord Babbage who has—we don’t know why—transferred the debt to his lordship. How’s Lord Rampton to know the difference when it’s just for one evening? I’m sure I could persuade him to alter the terms—’
‘No, Rose.’ Shrugging off her hand, Charles shook his head. ‘As Helena’s husband I’m responsible for her debts and as your brother I’m responsible for your welfare. It would not be right to expose you to this … well, we don’t know what kind of man Lord Rampton is. Ruthless. Calculating. Those are just some of the descriptions I’ve heard bandied about my club. I admit it’s because of Helena we’re in danger of losing the plantation but you had nothing to do with the sordid business that night.’ He looked pained.
‘With due respect, Charles,’ Rose cut in sharply, ‘I’ve had to contend with Helena’s dangerous vices for the past five years and I think I can claim some credit for the fact that we still have a plantation!’ She’d allowed her anger to get the better of her. Charles did not react well to anger. Changing tack, she added softly, ‘I shan’t disgrace you, I promise. I’ll simply be there as Lady Chesterfield instead of Miss Chesterfield. It’s not such a terribly wicked lie.’
* * *
‘You will not attend Lord Rampton’s dinner dressed like that!’
Edith, the loyal family retainer who had mothered the family for as long as Rose could remember, raked her charge with disapproving eyes before bundling Rose upstairs, pressing her down before her dressing-table. No further description was needed as to what she thought of Rose’s drab grey velvet gown.
‘It’s the best I have,’ argued Rose.
‘And has been since you developed a chest and were out of short clothes. Miss Arabella! There you are! Tell me, what do you think of your sister’s gown? Would you wear it in fine company?’
Arabella, combing out her long, white-gold hair as she perched on the edge of Rose’s bed, regarded her gravely. ‘Of course not, but Rose doesn’t have any fine clothes. If I knew her ankles wouldn’t show I’d lend her something of mine… which would still be preferable to that old rag she has on.’
Watching as Edith went about her task with deft fingers, smoothing her sister’s glossy chestnut hair back from her high forehead, coaxing the curls from a fashionably high top knot, she asked, ‘Does this mean you plan on going about in fine company, after all, Rose? I thought you said the season was an expensive lot of nonsense and you wouldn’t be caught dead at anyone’s “drawing room”?’
‘Your sister only says such things because there’s no money to launch both of you, my girl. And does she look twenty-six with those fine eyes and glowing skin? Why, she’ll always be a beauty.’ Edith looked severely at her younger charge. ‘Just bear in mind, Miss Arabella, that you have your sister to thank for the fact that you’re to have a season at all.’
‘Perhaps Rose could wear something of Helena’s,’ Arabella suggested, chastened.
‘I couldn’t possibly!’
‘Well, you’re exactly the same height as Helena and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind, since you’re going in her stead.’
Rose looked grim. ‘That was not what I was worried about.’ An image of Helena with her languid self-possession and love of finery flashed through her mind and for a moment the magnitude of what she was about to do threatened to engulf Rose. Could she carry it off? After all, compared with the worldly Helena she was a greenhorn, an unsophisticated Colonial. Cleverer than Helena, certainly, but by no means as self-assured in the company of men. Nor as beautiful. Without these attributes was she not as good as throwing herself to the lions and making fools of them all in the process?
She took a deep breath and cast all doubts from her mind. It was the only way. She had a role to play, and play it she would. To perfection.
‘One of Helena’s gowns,’ she murmured, thoughtfully. Then, twisting her head to look at Arabella she said, wryly, ‘You’re right, dearest. Find me something… not too revealing. But don’t tell Charles. Helena is still sleeping so I can’t ask her, but it’s for her benefit. Dear Lord,’ she muttered, putting her hand to her chest and stroking the comforting drab grey velvet. It had been so long since she’d been in sophisticated company she’d never been told whether she had a cleavage worth showing, or not.
* * *
Ashley Delacroix, Viscount Rampton, eyed his dinner guest appreciatively across the table. Babbage had not lied when he’d called Lady Chesterfield a beauty. His use of the term ‘exotic’ was, perhaps, a little off the mark. ‘Classic English rose’ was a more apt description; although perhaps Babbage had been referring to the young lady’s unusually sun-kissed complexion and taste in attire, for the gown that barely clothed Lady Chesterfield this evening was considerably less modestly cut than the type of evening gown most English women favoured. Not that Rampton was complaining. It was always a pleasure to dine with a beautiful woman, especially one not too shy to display her ample charms to best advantage. It might explain, too, the reason for her husband’s clear displeasure, although that could, just as likely, be due to the nature of the business which had brought them together.
Rampton raised his glass to his guests and fixed Lady Chesterfield with an appreciative look as he proposed the toast.
‘To a pleasant evening and the satisfactory completion of our business.’
It was unlike him to mix business with pleasure. Boredom had been to blame. When his friend Babbage had sworn he would repay his loan to Rampton within the sennight, then reneged with the surprising excuse that he was reluctant to press the lady who owed him the necessary means to do so, Rampton had been unsympathetic. But when Babbage had elaborated upon the evening that he and the ‘exotic’ beauty had spent together, Rampton’s curiosity had, despite himself, been aroused. To his surprise he’d found himself absolving Babbage of his debt by taking on Lady Chesterfield’s debt in lieu. For no better reason than that he wanted to see for himself whether this apparently fascinating young woman would enthral him as much as the notoriously difficult-to-impress Babbage.
‘I hope you are enjoying your visit to London, Lady Chesterfield,’ he said, conversationally. ‘My friend, Adrian Babbage—whom you will no doubt recall,’ he added, his smile sly, ‘tells me you have spent your life in the West Indies and this is your first visit to your father’s homeland. You must still be adjusting to the climate.’
‘I daresay I will not be here long enough to get used to it, Lord Rampton,’ said Rose, coolly. She disliked the way her host’s eyes travelled languorously from her décolletage to her face when he spoke. Certainly they were very fine eyes: a piercing blue, but the supercilious arch of the eyebrows disconcerted her. And while his unconcealed admiration was certainly balm to her self-confidence, there was something in their depths that hinted at a whole world of which she knew nothing.
She forced a smile. It was important that he should not suspect any discomfiture in her. Indeed, discomfiture was rare for Rose and it was highly disconcerting to suspect she wouldn’t be feeling this uncomfortable had Lord Rampton not been such an exquisite nonpareil. Indeed, she could never remember having met a gentleman who exuded such potent magnetism—and who was aware of it, she thought grimly.
Thick dark hair swept back from high cheekbones while intense dark blue eyes glittered with unconcealed interest in her above his beautiful straight nose, a fine piece of physiognomy which she found herself admiring simply so she wouldn’t be drawn by his mouth.
Yet she couldn’t help herself. That mouth of his was the only part of him that seemed not constructed from marble, for it trembled just a little—from amusement? Although the suspicion that Lord Rampton found Rose or her predicament amusing should have outraged her, for a moment all she could think of was tracing those exquisitely shaped lips with her forefinger before touching her own experimentally against what seemed the only soft part of the man.
She jerked back. Where had such a thought come from? Blushing, she forced languor into her tone. She was, after all, playing Helena, the bored beauty.
‘Once this unsavoury business has been attended to, and my sister—’ she caught herself just in time, ‘—in-law launched, we will return home.’
Fighting the urge to slump and hide as much of herself as possible beneath the table Rose held herself proudly. Self-conscious though she felt in Helena’s outrageously daring, diaphanous silver-and-white evening gown, she knew any attempts at appearing coy or modest would only look contrived and draw further attention to what she wished, heartily, was not quite so obviously on show. She must not look down and frighten herself with the sight of how much bosom was revealed, although the faint breeze that ruffled the curtains and caressed her bare skin was a constant reminder. Edith had assured her that although she looked every inch the seductress, she was not, actually, indecent. It was small consolation.
It was true that Rose was unaccustomed to male attention, and as a result by Lord Rampton’s lazy, confident smile. Oh yes, he certainly looked like a man used to getting his own way.
Well, Rose knew how to get her own way too. And Success—no, survival—depended upon managing Lord Rampton in the same artful manner she managed her stubborn brother and her volatile, unpredictable sister-in-law. She must play the seductress, as naturally and consummately as Helena, who was the reason behind, and inspiration for, this whole charade.
Leaning slightly across the table, she contrived a faintly seductive pout, surprised at how easily it came … and by how much she enjoyed the results.
Charles had tried, several times, to interject. Characteristically he had allowed himself to be quelled on each occasion by an impatient response from Lord Rampton. Rose felt vindicated. Of course she had had no choice but to have come this evening. Her brother was completely out of his depth.
And he looked it. But was he, Rose wondered, aware of the almost conspiratorial smiles that their host continued to direct at her? Her skin tingled.
Rose had always been surprised that Charles was not firmer with Helena on the subject of Helena’s conduct and wardrobe, though until now she had never realized how much licence marriage gave one to behave as one chose, rather than as one ought.
Dropping her eyes beneath another of Lord Rampton’s searing gazes Rose encountered her reflection in the highly polished silver epergne that formed the table centrepiece. Edith had worked wonders with her appearance. The plain creature she’d always thought herself had been transformed into a society beauty with her wide-set bright eyes, pert nose and creamy complexion the equal of Arabella’s pale innocent charm and Helena’s lush allure.
With the kind of confidence that now buoyed her she felt capable of anything. Even armed combat with Lord Rampton. Well, she had his measure. He was rich, bored, careless of others, no doubt having never suffered a moment’s angst or deprivation in his entire life.
On reflection, the thought was not bolstering. Charity or leniency were not likely characteristics, nor had Rampton been given any good reason to extend either to the struggling Chesterfields.
She resisted the urge to slump in defeat as she acknowledged the size of the debt owed to this man which would suck the lifeblood out of even their marginal existence. What was Rose doing, dreaming of gilded futures when it was not too extreme to say a life in debtor’s prison or the workhouse was a distinct possibility if she could not win over this man?
She took a deep, sustaining breath, flicking her tongue over dry lips. Lord Rampton, she realized, was waiting for her to broach the subject which had brought them to his dinner table.
‘I realize, Lord Rampton, that you are owed rather a lot of money. Mr Babbage, however, indicated that …’
* * *
The beautiful Lady Chesterfield’s hesitation, and the sudden colour that flooded her cheeks piqued Rampton’s curiosity. He waited for her to finish, recalling Babbage’s colourful account of this young woman’s conduct one wild night during the previous week. It was all the more intriguing for, while Lady Chesterfield, with her lustrous chestnut hair, pretty mouth and high cheekbones beneath intensely blue eyes was as beautiful as she had been painted, her demeanour did not accord with Babbage’s description. In surprising contrast with her gown there had been lapses in her mien, indicating that Lady Chesterfield’s confidence was not as iron-clad as she would have him believe.
‘What did Mr Babbage say he was prepared to be, Lady Chesterfield?’ Rampton prompted, unconcerned that, to his own ears, he sounded condescending. His efforts were rewarded as he watched the blush deepen and noted the difficulty she had in responding. He had not expected such sport when he’d asked the beautiful Lady Chesterfield and her lily-livered husband to dinner.
‘Patient, Lord Rampton.’
‘Ah, but there we differ, Lady Chesterfield. You see, Mr Babbage is a very patient man. At least, he is where beautiful women are concerned.’ Rampton took a sip of his wine, savouring it, and the moment. ‘I, on the other hand, am not.’
With amusement he observed the way her fingers clenched the stem of her wine glass and the obvious effort with which she forced herself to relax. She toyed with her glass before glancing at him over the rim, flirtation in her tone as she murmured, ‘Mr Babbage is a gentleman.’
His lips curled at the implied rebuke. ‘Whereas I am not?’
The seductive gleam that lit up her large blue eyes, and the curve of her mouth—shaped more like a rosebud than the full, sensuous look he generally preferred—went a long way towards explaining the effect this young woman had had on Rampton’s erstwhile debtor. He felt a moment’s exultation as he held her gaze. He could read collusion in their depths. Yes, he thought with satisfaction, with the Chesterfields as hard pressed for ready funds as rumour had it there would be no difficulty coming to some mutual agreement with the beautiful Lady Chesterfield whereby no money need be exchanged. Unconsciously he ran the tip of his tongue over his top lip as he returned a somewhat wolfish smile, gesturing to the footman who hovered at the sideboard to bring more wine. Here was the return on his investment this evening, considering the other diversions he had sacrificed.
‘A gentleman?’ repeated his lovely guest with evident amusement. ‘I am forced to reserve judgement, Lord Rampton. Time alone will tell.’
It could be an entertaining season, thought Rampton, anticipation surging through his loins. Admittedly he already had a mistress but the relationship was on the wane. He was ready for fresh excitement and Lady Chesterfield was an exquisite-looking creature, long married and clearly disenchanted with her husband who had no doubt been chosen for her.
‘Yes,’ he considered. ‘But Mr Babbage has no head for business. Which is why he is perpetually in debt and I am not. Nevertheless, Lady Chesterfield,’ he inclined his head, smiling, ignoring Charles, ‘I am confident that we can come to some arrangement.’
Yes, he was sure of it. He would not call in the debt. Once Lady Chesterfield had launched her sister-in-law, she and her husband would return to the West Indies. All that differed from the original plan was that, between now and then, he and Lady Chesterfield would have enjoyed a little more pleasure than either of them had anticipated. One only had to spend five minutes in their company to see that neither Sir Charles nor the lovely Lady Chesterfield were likely to object.
The time had come, he decided, to give his current mistress, the fiery, exquisite but no longer incomparable, Lady Barbery, her congé.
* * *
‘You missed a rum do at Baroness Esterhazy’s this evening, Rampton.’
Hesitating on the threshold to the library, Rampton turned, narrowing his eyes in greeting. It was hard to tell whether his brother were foxed or not.
He waited as Felix was relieved of his outerwear by Lavery before preceding his brother into the library. ‘I had dinner guests.’
‘Important dinner guests for you to have refused the baroness’s invitation.’
‘I turned down three equally enticing invitations, I assure you, Felix.’ Rampton’s tone was dry as he went to the sideboard, asking carelessly, ‘And did the baroness enjoy her evening?’
‘Well, she did her best to appear unconcerned by your absence.’ Felix waited while his brother poured them both a drink. ‘But I wasn’t fooled for a minute. Of course, at the first opportunity she holed me up in a dark corner to ask what you were doing.’
‘Indeed?’ Rampton handed his brother the tumbler half-full of amber liquid, then settled himself on the leather sofa, stretching his long legs in front of him to gain maximum benefit from the small coal fire that burned in the grate. He felt a little guilty that he had trouble visualizing the baroness’s bounteous charms when she’d been out of his life for less than six months. She’d been replaced by Catherine Barbery, his very first lover, who had unexpectedly waltzed back into his life a few months ago.
Well, the sizzle had left that relationship, too. Catherine seemed as bored as he, however, being a gentleman, Rampton had thought to let her be the one to sever ties.
But if she didn’t do it soon, Rampton would be forced to act, he reflected, conscious of a very potent surge of desire that made him cross and re-cross his legs. Since last night, all he could think of was Lady Chesterfield’s fair and fragile beauty. And those eyes: clear and incisive, as if she knew exactly what was on his mind and was both intrigued and terrified. He must go about his wooing with care. So many of his mistresses had thrown themselves at him but Lady Chesterfield was an altogether different proposition. He was visited by the interesting thought that she might be sizing him up as her first conquest. Her lapses of self-confidence would attest to that. Also, five years married to that dandelion baronet who agreed with everything anyone said—if they said it with enough force or conviction—must mean poor Lady Chesterfield, who was clearly a spirited little thing, was panting for a forceful lover. Having been incarcerated in the West Indies most of her life she’d have little knowledge as to how to go about the whole business.
Amusement and anticipation flickered in his self-acknowledged carnal depths and he realised, unrepentant, that he was licking his lips, already relishing the sport to come. Indeed, there’d be much of that, and he was quite happy to lead the way.
‘Come now, Rampton, don’t assume that indifferent tone with me. Three months ago you were wild for the baroness.’ Felix lowered himself into the wing chair opposite, his mouth curling in a boyish and far less cynical imitation of his brother’s. ‘I told her I had not the least idea what you were up to this evening but that I was there in your stead and hoped she could regard me with similar affection.’ With a shrug, he added on a philosophical note, ‘She was unmoved. Even flattery, far in excess of her merits, made no difference. And then the baron arrived, all husbandly solicitation, so that was the end of that. Such a shame you always fall for the married ones.’
Rampton gave a short laugh. This was not a topic he wished to entertain with his brother. ‘I’d be a fool to do otherwise.’
‘You can’t shrug off your matrimonial duty for too much longer, surely?’
‘I endured a tedious evening at Almack’s last night, in case you had forgotten.’ Almack’s was bursting with debutantes at this time of year. Rampton decided not to add that he derived greater sport from the more comely chaperones than he did from their gauche young charges, fresh from the schoolroom.
Felix, however, was well aware of his elder brother’s predilections, for he said, almost testily, ‘You need a wife, not a mistress, Rampton. Soon you’ll be considered even more ramshackle than our dissolute papa.’
The amused smile froze. Rampton drained his tumbler. ‘Why, Felix, I do believe you are serious.’ Collecting himself, he assumed a tone that was far more light-hearted than he felt as he pointed out, ‘Ramshackle I would be indeed to saddle myself— and the rest of the family—with an unsuitable bride. I long ago learned that duty and pleasure are two very different matters. And matrimony, you would do well to remember the next time you find yourself in thrall to the latest goddess, does not fall within the latter category. Rest assured that in the meantime, unless some worthy contender for my affections drops from the sky into my lap, I intend to take my pleasure while I can.’ Yawning, he added, ‘I’m off to bed. Unlike some, I no longer have the advantage of youth.’
Felix pulled a face as he watched his brother rise. ‘God forbid, I’d better make the most of the few good years left to me. Looking at you is like looking at myself in a mirror in five year’s time, all craggy and going grey.’ He grinned. ‘But without the boyish charm. Little consolation that the women seem to find a viscount in his dotage a more enticing prospect than his younger, far handsomer brother.’
Rampton snorted as he headed for the door, tossing over his shoulder, ‘I think my pocketbook accounts for that.’
‘I understand your caution, Rampton.’ Felix’s tone grew serious. ‘But are you so afraid of parson’s mousetrap? Surely you’ll confess to having been intrigued by just one unmarried miss tossed in your direction?’
Rampton turned slowly, forcing amusement to his lips. ‘The short answer, little brother, is no.’ He hesitated. ‘I have never been in love and my desire is whipped up only when I am assured my quarry is safely unobtainable.’
‘But don’t you get fagged with Mama forever charging you with your neglect in securing the family line?’
‘Mama will have to be satisfied another ten years for that is when I plan to retire quietly to the country and breed sheep,’ he grinned, ‘amongst other things. In ten years a pliant, suitable wife will fit nicely into my plans. So if these questions are on mama’s behalf, you can tell her that the nursery will not need decorating for at least a decade.’
Felix looked unimpressed. ‘You really are just like Papa. Still, it can’t be too bad having all these designing mamas trying to entice you with their daughters. I wish I were so popular!’ He sighed. ‘At least you’re more discerning and discreet than Papa and, lucky for you, it seems there’s no shortage of pretty matrons panting for your attentions.’
Rampton shrugged as he stroked the doorknob. ‘It’s hardly surprising I’m not inclined to chase innocent virgins, given the astonishing number of bored, highly desirable married women who make plain their desire for a little dalliance with a viscount in his dotage—as you put it.’
Once again, his thoughts strayed to the enchanting Lady Chesterfield. The messages she had sent him that night might have been mixed but mutual attraction had charged the air. He couldn’t wait until their next meeting.
Felix tossed back his drink, then rose to pour another, saying in falsely sympathetic tones, ‘Poor Rampton, to be leg-shackled by such mistrust must be a terrible thing. As long as caution remains your mistress you’ll never find a wife. Anyway, what are your plans for tomorrow that you have to be up with the birds?’
Rampton contemplated the question. ‘My plans for tomorrow,’ anticipation turned up the corners of his mouth, ‘and perhaps those for the next few weeks, will be to mix a little business with pleasure.’
‘But you said—’
‘I never said,’ Rampton grinned, ‘that pleasure and duty were mutually exclusive. And it just so happens that tomorrow is one occasion when they are not.’