A Rake of Her Own
Ariadne Cushing had been a ghost for as long as she could remember.
Well, not a true ghost, in the spiritual sense. But no one seemed to see her or listen to a word she said. She might as well be invisible. Her mother, Agnes, had told her what to do and when to do it for the past twenty-two years of Ariadne’s life. It had become such second nature, she found it impossible to say no. Her mother simply made a decision and swept aside any arguments. All attempts at rebellion were swiftly crushed. But now, her mother had gone too far.
“It’s all settled,” Agnes said. “You’re going to marry Mr. Filmore Wilson.”
What? Ariadne opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Marriage? For a moment, her brain seemed to be filled with cotton, and she didn’t know where to begin her protests.
“He has agreed to the betrothal and will be joining us within a day or two.” Her mother smiled in triumph. “We promised him a modest dowry, and after you are married, you will both live with your father and me. Aren’t you pleased?”
Should she be pleased about a man who had agreed to marry her after she had only met him twice? No, not at all. She barely remembered what Mr. Wilson looked like. Had they even spoken?
“I don’t understand.” They had traveled to Castle Keyvnor this week to celebrate the wedding of her cousin Lady Gwyn Hambly to Lord Locryn Pendarvis. “How did this happen?”
Agnes handed her a letter. “I told him we were attending Lady Gwyn’s wedding, and he was kind enough to send his answer, along with his reply to the invitation. I will see to all the arrangements.” She rested her hands on the back of a chair, her posture rigid even as she smiled brightly.
Oh no. This was sounding more and more like a medieval arranged marriage where her mother had sold her to the highest bidder. Or possibly, Agnes had paid Mr. Wilson instead.
“I don’t think—”
“Yes, you’re right, my dear.” Her mother cut her off and took her by the hand. “There’s really no need to wait that long.”
“That wasn’t what I—”
But Agnes ran over her protests like an ox-drawn cart. “I can ask Mr. Wilson to obtain a special license, and you can be married within a fortnight. You don’t really have any friends, so that makes it easy to keep it a simple wedding.”
Her mother went on to describe what Ariadne should wear (her blue gown), what sort of flowers there would be (primroses), and what food would be served (sandwiches).
“Perhaps you ought to marry him,” Ariadne muttered.
“Do not be disrespectful.” Agnes sighed and sat down in the chair. “Am I wrong, wanting to see my only daughter happy and wedded? Did I not give you time enough to find a husband of your own?”
“You did, but—”
“But no one wanted you.” Agnes folded her hand together and frowned. “I am so sorry that you were not born beautiful, Ariadne. And if you would only learn to be silent and obedient, there are a good number of gentlemen who would overlook your tendency to be a blue stocking.” Her expression turned pained. “Men do not like intelligent women.”
Though she ought to be accustomed to her mother’s frank demeanor, it still hurt her feelings to be reminded of her plain face. But she mustered her courage and said, “I won’t marry a man who cannot be bothered to ask for my hand in person. Absolutely not.”
Agnes straightened. “You will do nothing to threaten this match. It’s the only one you’ve had, and I’m not about to let it slip away.”
“I won’t do it.”
Her mother’s mouth tightened. “I was afraid you might be disagreeable.”
Disagreeable? It was now becoming clear that she would have to stand her ground and dig in her heels.
“Your father and I agreed that if you are too stubborn to know what’s good for you, then you will leave our household. Perhaps we’ll send you to Highwood House. My uncle Barton can look after you.”
Ariadne resisted a shudder. Her great-uncle had always stared at her in a way that made her uncomfortable. She couldn’t tell why, but there seemed to be a touch of madness in him.
And her mother wasn’t known to make idle threats.
“I could go and live with Grandmama,” she suggested. Her maternal grandmother had been an ally over the years. Although an illness had made it difficult for her grandmother to speak, Ariadne had always been close to her.
“No. That would be rewarding your behavior if you dare to deny this match,” her mother argued. “And besides, my mother has not been feeling well, as of late. It’s why your father did not accompany us to the wedding. He saw it as his duty to look after her”
Ariadne sobered at that. She thought it was kind of Papa to go and visit Petronella, when her own daughter would not. Agnes had been estranged from her mother for many years, but at least her grandmother would not be alone during the illness. Had she but known, Ariadne would have gladly accompanied her father. “I will travel to see her after this wedding is over.”
“Not until the question of your marriage is settled.” Agnes stiffened, her mouth tight with disapproval. It was clear that her mother would not abandon this quest. There had to be another way out.
“And what if I find someone else to marry?” Ariadne suggested. “Would that be sufficient?”
Her mother sighed again. “It’s impossible, and moreover, it would be rude to your fiancé, who is traveling such a distance for the wedding. No, be sensible, Ariadne. This is the best way. I have found you a husband, and you should be grateful.”
Grateful was not at all the word that came to mind. Frustrated. Furious. Horrified. Those were more appropriate descriptions.
“You should go and rest now, my dear,” her mother finished. “You look positively ill. I will have one of the maids lay out your yellow gown for tonight.”
Ariadne had no intention of lying down—not with all the wedding preparations and guests arriving. But it was easier to make her escape if she let her mother believe that she was napping. “All right.”
She opened the door to the bedchamber and closed it behind her. From the two trunks placed inside the room, she guessed she would be sharing a bed with other wedding guests.
Ariadne turned her back on the sleeping arrangements, desperately wanting a distraction. She stared at the room for a long time. Last Christmas, she had come to visit the castle, and there were many hidden passageways. If this was the particular room she remembered, she was fairly certain that one of the panels would open a secret door that led to the library. Her cousins had used it often to escape punishment.
Ariadne knocked on the wall, searching for the hidden latch. Her fingers stopped upon a loose panel, and when she pulled it, the doorway opened. She smiled, pulling the panel behind her, but leaving it slightly ajar.
She walked down the narrow passage until she saw the faint traces of light revealing the other door. When she ran her fingers over the wood, she found a small knob. With one turn, she opened it and found herself inside the library. The bookcases stretched high with leather volumes in neat rows. Ariadne smiled when she saw all the books.
The faint sound of a lute playing caught her attention, and she glanced up. Though she had heard that Castle Keyvnor was haunted, this was the first time she had seen the Tudor ghost, Benedict. He lifted his hand in a wave and continued playing his song.
Ariadne supposed she ought to be frightened, but he didn’t appear menacing in any way. At last, she decided to just leave him alone and choose her books. She began with a volume of poetry and then chose another story collection about Greek mythology. She was just starting to add a third book, when she turned the corner and saw a man seated in one of the wingback chairs.
For a moment, she stared at him, feeling like an utter idiot—for he was breathtakingly handsome. Dark blond hair framed his clean-shaven face, and he had deep green eyes. He was a large man, and the white shirt he wore seemed to strain at his muscles. It looked as if one of the buttons had gone missing, and it gave her a hint of male skin.
A Greek god, indeed.
He had a lazy expression and a faint smile upon his face. She could imagine him as Zeus, come down to earth to seduce an unsuspecting virgin. For a moment, she let herself envision what it would be like to kiss such a man. Not that he would want to kiss someone like her. But he appeared every inch a rake—the sort of man her mother had warned her about. If she had any sense at all, she should leave the library at once.
But her feet seemed to be glued to the floor and wouldn’t move. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I was just…looking for a book to read.”
“Did you find one?” he asked.
She nodded. “I did, yes. Thank you.” Her nerves seemed to deepen, and she was unable to tear her gaze from him. “I’ll just…go now and leave you in peace.” If she could get her feet to move, that is.
“You can stay if you want,” he offered. “I don’t mind.”
That wasn’t a good idea at all. She wouldn’t enjoy the quiet escape of reading with a man like him nearby. He was entirely too distracting. Her imagination would go wandering off, and then she wouldn’t be able to read a single word. Instead, she would stare at that gorgeous mouth, wondering what it would be like to kiss someone like him. Or be seduced by him.
She nearly jolted at the thought.
He looked like the sort of man who would press her against the bookshelves, leaning in to kiss her throat. Shivers erupted across her skin at the thought.
But then, her mind began spinning off with another idea. There was another way out of this conundrum. If outright refusing the marriage wouldn’t work, what if she managed to ruin herself? Or, at the very least, cause a scandal. Either the man would be forced to marry her, or Mr. Wilson would cry off.
Who would ever seduce you? her brain mocked. You’re as appealing as lint swept beneath the carpet.
The voice of reality was right. No man would want to seduce her—especially one as handsome as this one. It would never work.
“It’s all right. I’ll go.” She took a step backwards, eyeing the doorway. “I wouldn’t want to bother you.”
“It’s no bother.” Then he tilted his head to the side and added, “You look as if you enjoy reading.”
She knew what he was implying. Most women did not wish to be considered a bluestocking who preferred books and quiet corners. This gentleman didn’t look like the sort of man who appreciated a good book. He looked as if he indulged in cards, debauchery, and wickedness.
And yet, she was honest. “Yes, I love to read. To me, there is nothing more wonderful than curling up with a story on a rainy day, near a warm fireplace with a cat beside me.” She gave a faint smile at the thought.
“What’s your name?” he inquired.
“I am Ariadne Cushing.”
“I am Evan Middleton. Viscount Harcourt,” he added.
For a moment, she wasn’t certain whether to extend her hand, but then he might take it. The thought of his hand upon hers made her into a nervous idiot. So, she simply bobbed her head in acknowledgment. “Well, Lord Harcourt, I do hope you’ll find a book to enjoy.”
“I don’t read much,” he admitted. “I was seeking an escape, that’s all.”
“From meddling mothers trying to lure you into marriage to their daughters?” The words blurted from her mouth before she could stop them.
The corner of his mouth twitched as if he were trying not to laugh. “Actually, quite the opposite if I must be frank. I am trying to find a wealthy bride. I came here to think of my strategy. I don’t know many of the families here.”
“So, you’re a fortune hunter.” The words came out before she could stop them. She really hadn’t meant to be so rude.
“You make it sound as if I’m a pirate,” he said drily. “I’m not all that bad, I promise.”
But he certainly appeared as if he could be very bad, if he wanted to. She sent him a sidelong glance, wondering if he was truly a rake.
“I don’t suppose you would be a wealthy bride?” he mused aloud. “Seeing as we’re discussing marriage and so on.”
She blinked a moment at his candor. “No, I am not wealthy. Nor do I wish to be a bride. I have my own marriage that I’m trying to avoid. If you will excuse me…” She clutched her books and started to leave the library.
“Wait a moment, Miss Cushing. You can’t say something like that and just leave. Do tell.” His voice was resonant and warm, inviting her to sit down and tell all her secrets.
He is a handsome stranger, she reminded herself. And no matter how she was tempted to pull up a chair and explain to him every frustration, he was not her confessor. Moreover, he was a temptation that she simply had to avoid.
Ariadne reminded herself not to be distracted from her purpose. And so, she turned back and remarked, “Thank you, sir, but I have to make plans of my own. Good day.” With her books as a shield, she departed, feeling a secret thrill at telling him no.
Even so, a small part of her wished she had stayed.
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