Deliciously Debauched by the Rake(5)

By: Ann Lethbridge

“Whoever he is, he is fast on his feet to find such a gorgeous display of roses at this time of night. Or at this time of year.” She picked up the bouquet and buried her face in the pale yellow blooms. The scent was delicious. “Such cleverness deserves some reward.”

She glanced down into the pit where the young blond gentleman had been earlier. There was no sign of him. Was he Mr. Francis? “Is the gentleman who gave you the flowers waiting outside?” she asked Broom.

“No, my lady. He asked permission to call on you tomorrow. I said it was not my place to say, as you instructed. He said to put the flowers in the window at the front of the house, if the answer was yes.”

Her heart picked up speed. Anger. It had to be anger. “The gentleman is impertinent. Was he young or old?”

The footman shifted from one foot to the other. “It’s a bit dark in the corridor, miss, and the candles just outside the door have gone out. I couldn’t see the gentleman none to clearly.”

“And he left.”

“Yes, my lady.”

Puzzled, she stared at the blooms. Yellow roses. It was not someone who knew her, not John, though for some odd reason she had hoped… But he knew her expressed preference for red blooms. She glanced at the cards in her lap. “Let in Lord Samuel, Mr. Partinger—did you ever hear the name Partinger, Barny?”

The sweet lady shook her head.

Perhaps she would be wise to entertain the advances of some unknown gentleman. It would cause less of a stir when she disappeared.

“And His Grace.” No advantage in snubbing the elderly Duke when everyone knew he preferred young men. She tucked the rest of the cards into her reticule. The footman would need instructions about all of them. No doubt they would be just as cheeky as the man who left the flowers. Put the bouquet in her window indeed. Whoever heard of such a thing? Whoever Mr. Francis was, when he arrived tomorrow, he would receive a set down of grand proportions.

The three chosen gentlemen filed into her box and made their bows. Mr. Partinger was the young blond gentleman from the pit. So she was no closer to solving who her mystery admirer might be.

Tomorrow would be soon enough. She set about making the gentlemen callers welcome, making them laugh and flirting outrageously. Just as she would if she were seeking a new protector.

Despite the offers of escort, she’d left the theater as she’d arrived, alone except for Barny and Broom. The next afternoon, sitting in the drawing room, embroidery in hand, she smiled across the room at Barny on the other side of the hearth. The small house she’d purchased for the governess some three years ago was perfect for two single women. “It all went very well last night.”

Then why did she feel so miserable?

“If you say so, my dear,” Barny said, a twinkle in her hazel eyes. “You certainly garnered lots of attention.”

She had. And all night long in her lonely bed she’d seen images of John with the two young ladies. So courteous. So polite. So ready to fall in love.

The needle missed the fabric and pierced her finger. “Ouch.”

“Would you like my thimble?” Barny asked.

Elizabeth inspected her digit, then sucked at the little bead of blood at its tip. “No, thank you.” She put the embroidery hoop down with a sigh. “Perhaps a trip to Bond Street will get rid of my fidgets.”

“Another chance to be seen, you mean,” Barny said with disapproval. “There are too many quizzes abroad in the afternoon. Go tomorrow morning.”

The bouquet on the sofa table caught Elizabeth’s eye. Put it in the window indeed. The gentleman would be disappointed. Or not. Men who courted the demimonde for entertainment rarely cared if their chosen ladybird said yea or nay. There were plenty more to be had for the price of a dozen yellow roses. She ought to have tossed them out. It would be a dreadful waste, though. An insult to the flowers themselves. And their perfume was lovely.

A knock sounded on the door.

She glanced at the clock. Yes, it was indeed the time for morning calls. Broom entered the room a moment or two later. “Mr. Francis,” he said.

She frowned. “I’m not at home.” She’d already told Broom she would not see him. Money. No doubt the man had greased her footman’s palm. He would have to—

“Good day, Lady Elizabeth.”

The beautiful man who stood looking at her had a bad boy smile on his face.

Her jaw dropped. “John?” Her voice was a squeak. A mouse would have been louder. Her glance shot to the footman. “You said it was Mr. Francis.”

The footman went scarlet. “That’s what it says on his card, my lady.”

“Oh, my goodness,” Barny said, leaping to her feet with an agility Elizabeth hadn’t seen in years. “I just remembered I needed to…to speak with Cook. Come along, Broom.”

Also By Ann Lethbridge

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