9 Rules To Break When Romancing a Rake: Prologue

London, England
April 1813

 

Lady Calpurnia Hartwell blinked back tears as she fled the ballroom of Worthington House, the scene of her most recent and most devastating embarrassment. The welcome night air was crisp with the edge of spring as she rushed down the great marble steps, desperation shortening her
footsteps and propelling her forward into the shadows of the vast, darkened gardens. Once hidden from view, she let out a deep sigh and slowed her pace, finally safe. Her mother would be livid if she discovered her eldest daughter outside without a chaperone, but nothing could have kept
Callie inside that horrible room.

Her first season was an utter failure.

It hadn’t even been a month since she’d made her debut. The eldest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Allendale, Callie should by all rights have been the belle of the ball; she’d been raised for this life—all graceful dancing and perfect manners and stunning beauty. That was the problem,
of course. Callie might be a fine dancer with impeccable manners, but a beauty? She was nothing if not pragmatic, and she knew better than to believe she was one of those.

I should have known this would be a disaster, she thought as she plopped herself down onto a marble bench just inside the Worthington hedge maze.

She’d been at the ball for three hours and had not yet been asked to dance by a suitor who wasn’t entirely unsuitable. After two invitations from renowned fortune hunters, one from a crashing bore, and another from a baron who couldn’t have been a day under seventy, Callie hadn’t been
able to continue feigning enjoyment. It was obvious that she was worth little more to the ton than the sum total of her dowry and her ancestry—and even that total was not enough to garner a dance with a partner she might actually like. No, the truth was, Callie had spent the better part of the
season overlooked by eligible, coveted, young bachelors.

She sighed.

Tonight had been the worst. As if it weren’t enough that she was visible only to the boring and the elderly, tonight she’d felt the stares of the rest of the ton.

“I never should have allowed my mother to pour me into this monstrosity,” she muttered to  herself, looking down at the gown in question, at its tootight waistline and its too-small bodice, unable to contain her breasts, which were a good deal larger than fashion dictated. She was positive that no belle of the ball had ever been crowned in such a vibrant shade of mandarin sunset. Or in such a hideous frock, for that matter.

The dress, her mother had assured her, was the very height of fashion. When Callie had suggested that the gown was not the most flattering to her figure, she had been informed by the countess that she was incorrect. Callie would look stunning, her mother had promised as the modiste had flitted around her, poking and prodding and squeezing her into the gown. And, as she watched her transformation in the dressmaker’s mirror, she’d begun to agree with them. She did look stunning in this dress. Stunningly awful.

Wrapping her arms tightly around her to ward of the evening chill, she closed her eyes in mortification. “I cannot return. I shall just have to live here forever.”

A deep chuckle sounded from the shadows, and Callie shot up, gasping in surprise. She could barely make out the figure of a man as she pulled herself up to her full height and attempted to slow her pounding heart. Before she could think to escape, she spoke, allowing her distaste for the
entire evening to lace her tone. “You really shouldn’t sneak up on people in the dark, sir. It isn’t gentlemanly.”

He responded quickly, the deep tenor of his voice sweeping over her. “My apologies. Of course, one might argue that lurking in the darkness isn’t exactly ladylike.”

“Ah. There you have it wrong. I am not lurking in the darkness. I am hiding in it. Quite a different thing, altogether.” She pressed back into the shadows.

“I shan’t give you away,” he spoke quietly, reading her mind as he advanced. “You might as well  show yourself. You’re well and truly trapped.”

Callie felt the prickly hedge behind her even as he loomed above and knew that he was right. She sighed in irritation. How much worse could this night get? Just then, he stepped into a sliver of moonlight, revealing his identity, and she had her answer. Much worse.

Her companion was the Marquess of Ralston—charming, devastatingly handsome, and one of London’s most notorious rakes. His wicked reputation was matched only by his wicked smile, which was aimed directly at Callie. “Oh no,” she whispered, unable to keep the desperation from
her voice. She could not let him see her. Not like this, trussed up like a Christmas goose. A mandarin sunset Christmas goose.

“What could be so bad, moppet?” The lazy endearment warmed her even as she looked about for an escape route. He was close enough to touch now, towering over her, a good six inches taller than she. For the first time in a long time, she felt small. Dainty, even. She had to escape.
“I…I must go. If I were found here…with you….” She left the sentence unfinished. He knew what would happen.

“Who are you?” His eyes narrowed in the darkness, taking in the soft angles of her face. “Wait…” She imagined his eyes flashing with recognition, “You’re Allendale’s daughter. I noticed you earlier.”

She could not contain her sarcastic response, “I’m sure you did, my lord. It would be rather difficult to overlook me.” She covered her mouth immediately, shocked that she had spoken so baldly.

He chuckled. “Yes. Well, it isn’t the most flattering of gowns.”

She couldn’t help her own laughter from slipping out. “How very diplomatic of you. You may admit it. I look rather too much like an apricot.”

This time, he laughed aloud. “An apt comparison. But I wonder, is there ever a point where one looks enough like an apricot?” He indicated that she should resume her place on the bench and, after a moment’s hesitation, she did so.

“Likely not.” She smiled broadly, amazed that she wasn’t nearly as humiliated by his agreement as she would have expected. No, indeed she found it rather freeing. “My mother…she’s desperate for a daughter she can dress like a porcelain doll. Sadly, I shall never be such a child. How I long for my sister to come out and distract the countess from my person.”

He joined her on the bench, asking, “How old is your sister?”

“Eight,” she said, mournfully.

“Ah. Not ideal.”

“An understatement.” She looked up at the star-filled sky. “No, I shall be long on the shelf by the time she makes her debut.”

“What makes you so certain you’re shelf-bound?”

She cast him a sidelong glance. “While I appreciate your chivalry, my lord, your feigned ignorance insults us both.” When he failed to reply, she stared down at her hands, and replied, “My choices are rather limited.”

“How so?”

“I seem able to have my pick of the impoverished, the aged, and the deadly dull,” she said, ticking off the categories on her fingers as she spoke.

He chuckled. “I find that difficult to believe.”

“Oh, it’s true. I’m not the type of young lady who brings gentlemen to heel. Anyone with eyes can see that.”

“I have eyes. And I see no such thing.” His voice lowered, soft and rich as velvet as he reached out to stroke her cheek. Her breath caught, and she wondered at the intense wave of awareness coursing through her.

She leaned into his caress, unable to resist, as he moved his hand to grasp her chin. “What is your name?” he asked softly.

She winced, knowing what was to come, “Calpurnia.” She closed her eyes again, embarrassed by the extravagant name—a name with which no one but a hopelessly romantic mother with an unhealthy obsession with Shakespeare would have considered saddling a child.

“Calpurnia.” He tested the name on his tongue. “As in, Caesar’s wife?”

The blush flared higher as she nodded.

He smiled. “I must make it a point to better acquaint myself with your parents. That is a bold name, to be sure.”

“It’s a horrible name.”

“Nonsense. Calpurnia was Empress of Rome—strong and beautiful and smarter than the men who surrounded her. She saw the future, stood strong in the face of her husband’s assassination. She is a marvelous namesake.” He shook her chin firmly as he spoke.

She was speechless in the wake of his frank lecture. Before she had a chance to reply, he continued.

“Now, I must take my leave. And you, Lady Calpurnia, must return to the ballroom, head held high. Do you think you can do that?” He gave her chin a final tap and stood, leaving her cold in the
wake of his departure.

She stood with him and nodded, starry-eyed. “Yes, my lord.”

“Good girl.” He leaned closer and whispered, his breath fanning the hair at her nape, warming her in the cool April night. “Remember, you are an empress. Behave as one, and they will have no choice but to see you as such. I already do…” He paused, and she held her breath, waiting for his
words. “Your Highness.”

And with that, he was off, disappearing deeper into the maze and leaving Callie with a silly grin on her face. She did not think twice before following him, so keen was she to be near him. At that moment, she would have followed him anywhere, this prince among men who had noticed
her, not her dowry, or her horrible dress, but her! If I am an empress, he is the only man worthy of being my emperor.

She did not have to go far to catch him. Several yards in, the maze opened on a clearing that featured a large, gleaming fountain adorned with cherubs. There, bathed in a silvery glow was her prince, all broad shoulders and long legs. Callie caught her breath at the sight of him—exquisite, as though he himself had been carved from marble.

And then she noticed the woman in his arms. Her mouth opened in a silent gasp—her hand flying to her lips as her eyes widened. In all her seventeen years, she’d never witnessed something so…wonderfully scandalous.

The moonlight cast his paramour in an aethereal light, her blond hair turned white, her pale gown gossamer in the darkness. Callie stepped back into the shadows, peering around the corner of the hedge, half-wishing she hadn’t followed, entirely unable to turn away from their embrace. My,
how they kissed.

And, deep in the pit of her stomach, youthful surprise was replaced with a slow burn of jealousy, for she had never in all her life wanted to be someone else so very much. For a moment, she allowed herself to imagine it was she in his arms: her long, delicate fingers threading through his dark, gleaming hair; her lithe body that his strong hands stroked and molded; her lips he nibbled; her moans coursing through the night air at his caresses.

As she watched his lips trail down the long column of the woman’s throat, Callie ran her fingers down the same path on her own neck, unable to resist pretending that the feather-light touch was his. She stared as his hand stroked up his lover’s smooth, contoured bodice and grasped the edge of the delicate gown, pulling it down, baring one high, small breast to the night. His teeth flashed wickedly as he looked down at the perfect mound and spoke a single word, “Gorgeous,” before lowering his lips to its dark tip, pebbled by the cool air and his warm embrace. His paramour threw her head back in ecstasy, unable to control her pleasure in his arms, and Callie could not tear her eyes from the spectacle of them, brushing her hand across her own breast, feeling its tip harden beneath the silk of her gown, imagining it was his hand, his mouth, upon her.

“Ralston…”

The name, carried on a feminine moan, sliced through the clearing, shaking Callie from her reverie. In shock, she dropped her hand and whirled away from the scene upon which she had intruded. She rushed through the maze, desperate for escape, and stopped once more at the marble bench where her garden excursion had begun. Breathing heavily, she collected herself, shocked by her behavior. Ladies did not eavesdrop. And they certainly did not eavesdrop in such a manner.

Besides, fantasies would do her no good.

She pushed aside a devastating pang of sorrow as the truth coursed through her. She would never have the magnificent Marquess of Ralston, nor anyone like him. She felt an acute certainty that the things he had said to her earlier were not truth, but instead the lies of an inveterate seducer,
carefully chosen to appease her and send her blithely off, easing his dark tryst with his ravishing beauty. He hadn’t believed a word of it.

No, she was not Calpurnia, Empress of Rome. She was plain, old Callie. And she always would be.

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