Deliciously Debauched by the Rake

By: Ann Lethbridge

Chapter One

The house resounded with silence. The mantel clock’s steady tick echoed in the chill drawing room. The candle on the sofa table fought the encroaching evening gloom. Dressed in bonnet and fur-lined pelisse as elegant as her surroundings, the surroundings she’d live in for the past five years, Lady Elizabeth sat opposite the unlit hearth.

Numb. Cold on the inside.

She kept her mind carefully blank. It did no good to go over and over the speech she must give. The decision was made. The words set in stone.

The case clock beside the front door struck the quarter hour. The carriage was due at any moment. If John didn’t come soon, their conversation would wait for another day. Putting off something she dreaded. Though her absence from the house might be a clue as to her intentions. Her gloved hands clenched in her lap. With deliberate care, she relaxed her fingers. No point in being impatient. Or upset.

Hooves rattled on the cobbles outside. Wheels ground to a halt. A carriage door slammed. Instinctively, she flinched at the sound of a key tuning in the front door lock. She forced herself to stillness, her face pleasantly blank. An expression learned years before and now put to good use.

Footsteps tramped along the tiled corridor. They stopped at the doorway.

“Elizabeth?” The deep rich voice resonated with surprise and, blast him, gladness.

“John,” she replied with a bright smile. “As ever, your timing is perfect.”

He strode into the room, manly, tall, with light brown hair ruffled by the wind. Her heart leaped as it always did when she saw him. Intelligent gray eyes looked at her in puzzlement. A frown disturbed his classically handsome features. His lips, his beautiful mouth that when he smiled made her toes curl with anticipation and love, parted to form a question.

In that moment, the temptation to change her mind beat in her blood with irresistible force. She must not. She’d been fortunate to keep him this long. To hold him at her side any longer was unfair. Pure selfishness.

“I didn’t expect to see you for a day or so,” he said. “Is something wrong? Did my grandmother not treat you well?”

She hadn’t expected him to be quite so perceptive. “Your grandmother was a most kind hostess.” Generous. Sweet. Kind. To a woman who did not belong among polite society. To have gone had been utter folly.

The frown remained. He glanced at the trunk and the hatboxes neatly stacked beside the door. “Did you only just arrive? I’ll have Dunbury take up your trunks.”

Lean and lithe, he moved swiftly to the bell pull.

“I gave Dunbury the evening off.” She’d given all the servants a holiday. She rose to her feet, smiled at him fondly, with no hint of the sorrow pressing at her heart as she gazed into his beautiful face. “You arrived just in time to bid me farewell.”

He stared blankly. But John was a clever man and in a second his mind grasped her meaning. His expression darkened. “Something has happened.” His jaw tightened. He strode closer, reaching for her hands, his gaze fixed on her face. “What is wrong?”

She let him keep her hands, but rested them loosely in his grip. “It is over, John. I am leaving you. A carter will call in the morning for my things. I will stay with a friend this evening.”

He shook his head, his expression one of shock. “Why? Because I left you in Kent? I thought you didn’t mind.”

She had known he would ask, of course. And she knew what to say; she just hated the thought of causing him pain. “I didn’t mind.”

“Then why?”

“For that very reason. Because I didn’t mind. I didn’t care if you left or if you stayed.” She had minded, but she hadn’t objected, because knowing him as she did, she knew he would not be able to let his best friend down. He was a good and honorable man. And kind and generous. The greatest man she knew. He had never treated her as anything but a lady. And that was why she had to let him go. “You left without a second’s thought and it didn’t trouble me one bit. The spark is gone.”

He cursed under his breath. “Blast it, Elizabeth, say what you mean.”

They’d always been frank and open. She owed him nothing less now. “When we first met, we couldn’t get enough of each other. We couldn’t bear to be out of each other’s sight. Now we act like an old married couple, taking each other for granted, going our separate ways when it suits us.” She lifted her shoulders in a careless little gesture of dismissal. “There is no excitement left.”

“Are you saying you are looking for a new lover?” Incredulity filled his voice. She knew how he felt. It had taken her some long hours to become accustomed to the idea.

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