Never wear white to ruin a rogue.
It was a lesson Guinevere would not soon forget after tonight. Standing in her mud-soiled gown, she studied the ancient elm in front of her bedchamber window. Thick, sturdy branches reached to her balcony. She could make the jump. She’d done it before, though never in a ballgown. Anticipation and unease fluttered in her belly as she considered her choices once more.
Climb the tree to her bedchamber, or try to enter her home and make her way to her room without being seen?
Music suddenly drifted out from the ballroom. Another dance had started. Perhaps she could enter the house after all. A few steps backward offered a better view of the ballroom, the front entrance to her home, and the pleasure gardens, but her hope was snuffed out quicker than a cheroot under a Hessian.
Drat her mother. By the multitude of carriages lining the path to their home and the throngs of formally attired men and women spilling from the terrace and littering the moonlit gardens, it appeared that every last member of Society who had been invited to the ball had come. There was absolutely no chance she would make it into her house and to the privacy of her bedchamber unseen. As a member of the Society of Ladies Against Rogues, it would hardly do for her to be ruined when their whole mission was to prevent women from having their reputations and futures shredded to bits by heartless rogues. She knew a thing or two about that herself.
She smoothed agitated hands over the front of her white silk gown, stopping with a jerk when her fingertips grazed the still-wet mud that the rogue Lord Pratmore had splashed on her when she’d shoved him backward into that murky puddle. She didn’t regret the push. The man was a scoundrel and deserved to be in the muck where he belonged. She’d barely made it to the east garden in time to stop his ruining poor featherbrained Lady Fanny.
Guinevere glanced down at the large rip in the hem of her gown, proof of how recklessly she had run to intervene. If she had gotten wind of Lord Pratmore’s nefarious plan a few seconds later, Lady Fanny’s future could have been lost. Or she could have ended up being this Season’s on-dit. Having survived the latter once herself, Guinevere would not wish it on her worst enemy. A bitter smile turned up the corners of her lips. But she would wholeheartedly wish gossip and a nasty case of typhus or perhaps smallpox on Asher. Of course, he had not broken her heart and caused her enormous shame alone, but Elizabeth was now deceased, and it had to be the worst sort of sin to hold a grudge against the dead, even if she had proven to be no sort of true friend.
A light, cool, rose-scented breeze blew by Guinevere as she squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her fingertips to her throbbing temples. She hated that she’d been thinking about Asher and Elizabeth so much lately. Surely it was natural, given the news that Asher’s father had died, making Asher the new Duke of Carrington. She couldn’t seem to stop her mind from wondering how the past five years might have changed him. Was his brogue even more pronounced from his time back in Scotland where he’d grown up? Would he return to England now that his father was dead? She hoped he would not. In fact, she hoped he choked on his new title.
“Back ye go, ghosties,” she muttered under her breath in her best imitation of Asher.
Opening her eyes, she gave the tree one last assessment, then bent over to grasp her skirts. She struggled with the silk of her gown and its many underlayers, but once she had a firm grip, she tied the material in two large knots that would send her lady’s maid into fits. With the heaps of material settled on her thighs, she righted herself, the breeze now seeping through her thin stockings and making gooseflesh rise on her legs and arms.
If Mama happened upon her now, Guinevere would never hear the end of it. It had taken a full year after Asher had publicly humiliated her and wed Elizabeth for her mother to cease wailing every morning about Guinevere’s “doubtful future.”
No doubt her mother was currently snug inside Hawkford House’s ballroom with a glass of ratafia in one hand and a fan in the other as she gazed upon the eligible lords she hoped Guinevere might wed. After nearly five years of her mother’s unwavering and unwanted devotion to the task of getting Guinevere wed, she wished heartily that Mama would cease her efforts. It was a hopeless yearning. Her mother was not easily dissuaded. If only her father would be her champion against Mama’s demands, but Guinevere suspected her father found it easier to let Mama do as she wished than cause marital strife by disagreeing.
Guinevere moved toward the tree she intended to climb, eying it. It had been five years since she’d ascended its branches, but she held every confidence she could do so once again. After all, she was in top form—just as healthy at three and twenty as she had been back then.
The start of the climb was much more difficult than she had recalled. Bark scraped the tender skin of her palms, and perspiration gathered between her breasts and rolled down her back. At the nape of her neck, sweaty clumps of hair had loosened from the chignon Ballenger had fashioned for her. Guinevere paused to blow a strand away from eyes. Her lady’s maid would have apoplexy if she saw what a mess Guinevere had made of her hair. Thankfully, Guinevere had no intention of requesting Ballenger right Guinevere’s hair. Once she was done with this climb, and in the security of her bedchamber, she’d discard the evidence that she’d been up to less-than-ladylike behavior—her mud-splattered gown—and she’d seek out her younger sister Vivian. She was quite handy with hair.
Finding another foothold with a wiggle of her toes, she grunted and grasped above her toward an appropriately sturdy branch by which to pull herself up. Her fingers gripped the bark and—
Snap! She fell to the ground faster than gossip spread among the bored, vapid members of her set. The smack of her back against the earth snatched all the air from her lungs. And her head… Heaven above! It pounded so loudly her eardrums hurt. Her thoughts clunked together from the noise.
“Damn, damn, damn,” she cursed. She would never dare utter such a word aloud were she not alone, but now, satisfaction at using the forbidden expletive filled her.
A shadow suddenly blocked the stars above, and disbelief stilled her as she stared at the outline of what appeared to be a man.
A hundred horrible possibilities entered her mind in a whirlwind. The shadow moved, lowering in a swift descent, and the aroma of whisky washed over her. Men in London, men of the ton, did not imbibe whisky. In fact, she’d only ever known one man to do so. His taste and his scent would be imprinted on her mind until her dying day.
“It cannot be,” she said in a deplorable, shock-laden whisper that made her cringe.
“Hello to ye, too, Guinevere.”
The faint but memorably deep Scottish brogue punctured her thoughts at the same moment it pierced her heart, making the blasted organ squeeze.
“I see ye’re still scheming,” Asher said. Before she could reply to that unwarranted insult to her character, he continued. “What’s this? Speechless, are ye? I don’t remember there ever being a time ye were at a loss for words.”
Was that a compliment or a barb?
Drat her tongue. It was tied in a thousand knots of complete and utter shock.
“Take my hand, then, little muted bird.”
Her body seemed to relax and pull toward him like a magnet. It was as if neither time nor his betrayal had dulled her desire for him. No. She refused to allow the all too familiar reaction.
She smacked his hand away from her face. “I’d sooner cut it off you than take it,” she snapped, then added, “Your Grace.” After all, there was no reason to let him see he could make her forget her manners.
“If I recall, we had moved past formalities last time I saw ye,” he said with the easy tone only a practiced rogue could affect.
“And if I recall, you are not the sort of man I want to be on intimate terms with ever again, Your Grace.”
He stiffened. She could feel it in the shift of air around him. It was subtle, but nonetheless, she sensed it. And she despised that she sensed it.
With that thought, she scrambled away from him and to her feet. “If you don’t mind,” she said, waving a dismissive hand while turning away from him and focusing on the tree once more. Not only would it be disastrous to be discovered alone with him but she did not like how hard her heart was pounding or the hundreds of questions that now buzzed in her head.
What had he been doing in Scotland all these years? Had he been heartbroken when Elizabeth and his unborn child had died? Why had he stayed away? Had he felt sad when his father had passed, or had he despised him until the bitter end? Did he regret what he had done to her? Had he ever looked back on it all and realized he had been an utter fool to set her aside so callously for Elizabeth? Elizabeth, who had knitted and danced with grace and never spoke of things like politics.
Drat. She clenched her teeth until pain shot across her jawbone. She would never allow herself to ask these questions. If only she could stop herself from even thinking them!
“I mind,” he said in that same overly confident tone, his voice growing louder as he approached her. “It’s not safe for ye to be climbing a tree alone in the dark. Ye could break yer neck.”
The nearness of him warmed her skin. He was impossibly, unacceptably too close to her. Asher never had cared a whit about the rules of Society that governed proper decorum. Possibly because he had not grown up in Society, and yet, she had been raised surrounded by Society’s rules and she didn’t care, either. She did, at least, try to care, tedious as it was.
His heat enveloped her like a quilt and made it hard to hold on to her thoughts. She concentrated harder. “If one goes by your history with women, a fall from this tree is not the only thing that need concern me.” She forced a steadiness to her voice that was in direct contrast to the way her pulse danced. “You, Your Grace, are just as dangerous to a woman’s well-being as this elm—likely more.”
Without warning, his firm hand gripped her right arm, and she found herself whirled toward Asher before she could even get out a proper outraged gasp. He towered over her, his presence impossibly more commanding than it had been years before. Her stomach clenched, and she became acutely aware of his fingertips touching her bare skin.
His dark, dangerous outline against the pale moon taunted her. When he tilted his head down at her, her pulse spiked, and when he raised his hands and jerked them through his hair, her chest tightened at the frustrated gesture she’d once intimately known. But she’d never really known him, had she? She’d imagined once that he was honorable, that he would do anything to protect her. What a ninny she had been.
“Yer life is not in danger with me, Guin, so ye can hardly compare the two.”
She swallowed. She had never thought she would hear his pet name for her rolling off his tongue again. She wished to God it didn’t cause such a deep ache in her belly, but some things were meant as sharp reminders of treacherous waters.
“Well, my reputation is most certainly in peril.” She strived to sound annoyed and not desperate to get away from him. “So do take your leave. I’m not sure why you are here in the first place.” In England. At my home. In front of me. “The ball is inside.”
“Aye, it is, but if ye recall, I never could stand too much time in the company of the uninteresting, the vain, and the arrogant.”
“Then how do you stand to be around yourself?” She could not resist the barb.
“Are you calling me uninteresting?” The underlying laugher in his voice was unmistakable.
“I thank ye, lass.”
“You should not. I’m calling you vain and arrogant. One with your past could never be considered uninteresting, Your Grace. You provided much fodder for the gossips by ruining Elizabeth and disgracing me.”
She bit her tongue to keep from blurting the rest of her thoughts: Leaving me to bear it all. Leaving me to know you had never wanted me, that you had used me. Allowing everyone to pity me, the poor, pleasantly plump, freckled one with the too frank speech who was cast aside for the Incomparable.
“I did not ruin Elizabeth.”
The warning in his tone both surprised and rankled her. She never had liked that men thought they could silence women with a cool word or harsh look, and she’d never imagined him to be the sort of man to do so. But apparently, she’d been blind to his true nature all along.
“I suppose that’s correct,” she conceded.
It had taken her a month to accept that her best friend had betrayed her. At first, Elizabeth had told Guinevere that Asher had lured her to the library in Guinevere’s home during the busy ball, and as horrible as that had been to hear, it had been even worse to think that her best friend since childhood had been disloyal. But when faced with evidence from her sisters, who’d seen Elizabeth and Asher laughing and talking, and then sneaking to the library together, it had been much harder to deny that Guinevere had been both betrayed and made a fool of.
But she was stubborn, to be certain, and she’d tried to cling to hope until a chance encounter with Asher’s father in front of the milliner’s shop had opened her eyes and shattered her heart. The tips of her ears burned now with the shame his words had brought her when he’d said, “I’m sorry my son pursued you to spite me. It was not well-done of him to use you thusly.”
In the face of that revelation, the truth had to be accepted. What she’d believed to be a real courtship had been a ruse. And somewhere along the way, he and Elizabeth had been drawn to each other. The worst of it all—Well, she still to this day could not decide what was the worst of it. It had all hurt like a mortal wound.
She’d gone around for months muttering, “Et tu, Brute?” under her breath until her mother threatened to send her to Bedlam if she didn’t cease her behavior. She’d stopped, of course, but that didn’t mean she had not felt like Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, betrayed by those he’d trusted.
Guinevere forced herself to shrug as if the past no longer haunted her or shaped her actions, her thoughts, and her future. She longed for the day it would be the absolute truth.
“Fine. Elizabeth was a willing participant in your scandalous liaison,” Guinevere amended.
She could swear she heard him sliding his teeth back and forth. Perhaps, he’d crack one. The thought turned up her lips.
After a moment, silence fell, and then he said, “It’s interesting how ye choose to twist the truth about what happened. I suppose it would be too difficult to face yerself in the looking glass if ye admitted the actual facts.”
Her brows dipped together. Did he mean Elizabeth had pursued him? Even if that was true, it changed nothing. He had used Guinevere in his personal vendetta against his father, a fact he likely did not realize she knew. But she’d eat a mud pie before telling him and allowing him to comprehend the depth of her humiliation.
A sudden pain pierced her head and neck. Whether from the conversation or the fall, she was not certain. She reached up and slid a hand over her cramping muscles.
“Did ye injure yerself?”
He could have been an actor for how sincere his concern sounded.
“Certainly not,” she snapped. “Do you think me the sort of woman to be injured from a small fall?”
“Nay, Guin. I think it would take much more than that to injure the likes of ye.”
The likes of me?
She frowned. What did he mean by that? No. No, she would not allow herself to wonder or to care about anything Asher did or said. She drew herself up to her full height, which irritatingly only put her head level with his shoulders. “Lady Guinevere, if you please.”
“As ye wish it, Lady Guinevere.”
Gawds. Why did the way he said her name still have to sound so enticing?
“If you’re endeavoring to be accommodating, perhaps you would depart now and find your way back to the ballroom that you never should have left.”
“If ye remember, the uninteresting and the vain drove me out here.”
“All the way to my bedchamber window?” she demanded. “Why not just retreat to the pleasure gardens? This seems an unnecessarily long way to come to get away from those who annoy you.”
“Well, I was in the pleasure gardens, but I saw something that interested me. Care to know what the something was, or are ye afraid to find out?”
For better or worse, she’d never been one to retreat from someone questioning her mettle. “You have me on tenterhooks,” she said, making sure her voice was as blasé as possible. “Do scandalize me.”
“It was the strangest sight.” His voice dipped low, mesmerizing. He always had been an excellent storyteller. Apparently, his knack for drawing a listener in had not dulled a bit over the years.
Pity, that. She’d prefer him to be as dull as the pianoforte lessons her mother still forced her to sit through, though everyone, including God, knew no amount of lessons would ever make her accomplished at such a thing. She was not a proper lady in most ways.
“What did you see?” she demanded, truly interested now. Mama often accused her of being like a cat: too curious for her own good.
“I saw ye, Lady Guinevere, running with little decorum and much abandon at the edge of the woods.”
“You couldn’t have.” She pressed a hand to her chest where her heart fluttered. She should have denied it outright. Was it too late? She bit her lip. Yes, she supposed it was, drat it all.
“I assure ye, I did see ye. I’ve keen eyesight.” He tapped his temple.
“But it’s dark,” she insisted, wincing at how foolish she sounded.
“Do the Bow Street Runners come around much for yer services?” he quipped.
“You are an odious man,” she snapped.
“Such cruel words from such beautiful lips,” he replied, managing to sound both chastising and oddly admiring at once. “I wonder where ye learned such language. From one of the men ye meet in the dark, perhaps?”
“I do not meet men in the dark,” she bit out.
He tsked at her, exactly as her mother would. “Let me remind ye that I saw ye. That white gown ye’re wearing is not verra stealthy.”
She clenched her teeth at the truth of the statement. “There are at least a hundred women in white gowns at my parents’ ball.”
“Aye, but I could think of no other lady who would abandon propriety as ye would and gallop around like a wild horse, heedless of caution.”
“Is that a compliment?” Her heart beat at a dangerous speed.
“Aye. I give them when they are due.”
“Why did you follow me, Your Grace?” Her words were unnervingly breathy. “And for that matter, why are you here?”
“I think ye know why I’m in London.”
She had meant her home, but whether he had purposely misconstrued her question or not, she didn’t know. What she did know, of course, but she preferred to ignore, was the fact that she had been unable to pay no mind to the news of his father’s death, not to mention the ensuing speculation from all the marriage-minded mamas regarding if the widowed, and now grossly wealthy, Duke of Carrington would return to London and take a wife. According to Guinevere’s elder brother, Huntley, wagers had been made at White’s as to whether or not Asher would show his face in London, take up his title properly, and secure another Incomparable.
She wished she’d known he had returned so she could have prepared herself mentally to see him. And she wished that Mama had told her that she’d invited him to this ball. Then Guinevere remembered that her mother had tried to speak to her about the guest list, and she had purposely evaded her mother’s attempts. Guinevere swallowed. She needed to say something about his father, but what, given their history?
“I was sorry to hear of your father’s passing.”
“I was sorry to hear it did not happen sooner,” he replied.
She bit her lip. She should not comment. She should stay out of his affairs. They were not friends. They could never be friends. And yet… “The years have not lessened your anger at him, I see.”
“We Scots are famous for holding grudges against people who’ve wronged us, Lady Guinevere. Whether the wrongdoer is a stranger, a father, or a lovely lass.”
Of all the nerve! How had she wounded him?
“Are you implying you have a grudge against me?”
A bang came from above, making her jerk, and then an urgent hiss. “Guinnie!”
Guinevere glanced toward her bedchamber window and stepped out of the shadow of the tree she’d been standing under with Asher. She was both relieved and annoyed to see three figures in her window, which were undoubtedly her sisters, Frederica and Vivian, and her best friend, Lilias.
“Guinevere Darlington,” Vivian said. “We have been frantically searching for you. Thankfully, I said—”
“Guinevere!” Lilias interrupted. “What are you doing down there? Lord Pratmore returned to the ballroom covered in mud and Lady Fanny returned unscathed. Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Guinevere said, keenly aware that Asher was behind her in the dark, listening to this conversation. She did not want the man privy to her secrets, but she could not announce his presence to prevent her sisters and Lilias from saying anything else. Her youngest sister, Frederica, had a habit of letting secrets slip to Huntley, and he would most certainly feel compelled to duel for her honor or some such nonsense. “I took a tumble in the muck, and I was trying to climb the tree to get back into my chamber to change.”
“I told you she had it well in hand,” Lilias said.
“Hold on, Guinnie,” Frederica said. “I’ll throw down the rope.”
Guinevere’s ears burned. What must Asher think that she and her sister had a secret rope hidden away for times such as these?
“Do hurry, Freddy,” she said faintly, Asher’s heat against her back made it hard to think properly. Had he moved closer? To better hear? To eat her like a wolf? She was positively losing her wits.
“Guinevere, when you return to your bedchamber, you might want to stay there and feign a megrim,” Lilias said.
Guinevere shook her head. “Mama would blister my ears for days if I attempted such a thing, and Papa wouldn’t stop her.”
“But, Guinnie, Carrington is here. We saw him!”
“Lilias, do cease talking!” Guinevere snapped as the rope was thrown out the window to dangle down the side of her home.
“I take it by your terse tone you already knew?” Lilias asked.
“Verra astute of ye, Lady Lilias,” Asher said, stepping out of the shadows.
Guinevere moaned as a chorus of gasps came from above her.
“I’d normally love to stand and listen to the rest of this conversation, but someone is coming.” Asher delivered the dreadful news as casually as one would speak of the weather.
One glance to her right confirmed he had spoken the truth. For once.
“I cannot be caught alone with you,” she burst out. “My parents would force us to wed!”
“I’m sure neither of us wants that,” Asher agreed and fairly shoved her toward the rope.
Before she could obtain a good hold on it, he was hoisting her up. His strong hands gripped her hips, causing her heartbeat to soar. Just as her fingers found purchase, he released her and said, “Climb quickly. I’ll distract whoever is coming this way, and ye can reward my efforts later.”
“By what means?” she asked, her overactive imagination—the one only Asher had ever ignited—sparking like a well-tended fire. “That, lass, remains to be seen.” And with those parting words, the man who’d once swept into her life and left her heartbroken disappeared yet again.