Seductive Scoundrels Book 5
He’s betrothed…but not to the woman who holds his heart
She’s hiding from the past…
Hoping to put the shame of her father’s disgrace behind her, Jessica Brentwood is determined to be the epitome of decorum and propriety her first London Season. All is well until she’s discovered naked in the arms of a notorious rake, Crispin, the wicked Duke of Bainbridge.
Though thoroughly compromised—through no fault of her own—Jessica refuses the enigmatic nobleman’s obligatory marriage proposal. She’d rather face certain scorn and ridicule than be forced into a marriage of convenience. Or rather, inconvenience.
He’s avoiding his future…
Betrothed since childhood, Crispin has no interest in wedding the woman he’s expected to marry before Season’s end. The lovely country miss, Jessica Brentwood, holds the key to his heart, though he’s never hinted at his feelings for her.
When they are the victims of a cruel hoax, Crispin isn’t at all unhappy that he’ll have to break his unwanted betrothal to marry Jessica. Except, his betrothed isn’t willing to release him from their agreement, and the vengeful villains who conspired to ruin Jessica and Crispin aren’t finished plotting mayhem.
How can he convince Jessica his rakehell’s reputation is mostly conjecture and that he’s adored her from afar? Dare Jessica believe the scoundrel who swears he’s not a rogue and vows he wants to protect her?
This heartwarming secret admirer historical by a USA Today bestselling author will make you sigh and have you rooting for Jessica and Crispin to outwit those conspiring against them.
If you enjoy reading class differences, lovable rogue, duke, and intrepid heroine love stories with a pinch of mystery, a dash of humor, and gripping emotion, then you’ll adore Collette Cameron’s enthralling SEDUCTIVE SCOUNDRELS SERIES. Buy WOOED BY A WICKED DUKE and settle into your favorite reading nook for a page-turning, entertaining Regency world adventure you can’t put down.
Though this book can easily be read as a stand-alone, most readers prefer to read the series in order.
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“One of the best books I have read this year and I have read a lot, had a favourite but this has blown my mind away. Loved loved loved this story.” ★★★★★~Maxine
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“There is no other author who uses vocabulary like Ms Cameron….Her characters are heartwarming and the story is a wonderful blend of sweetness and sadness.” ★★★★★ ~Roslyn
“Twists and turns with a bit of shock!! But a classic Cameron HEA!!!” ★★★★★~Anissa
“This story hits the ground running. I was captivated from the first chapter.” ~ Bobbie Sue
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“…paced nicely and had a fantastic ending…This is an easy five star read.” ★★★★★~Kristi
Chapter One Excerpt
Late April 1810
With a nervous glance over her shoulder to assure no one had observed her ill-advised flight from the Duke of Westfall’s ballroom, Miss Jessica Brentwood hoisted the skirts of her white silk gown and dashed through the open French windows. She’d steal a few minutes of much-needed respite and return before anyone noted her absence.
At least she hoped to do so. After all, this was London and a haut ton event. Dozens of busybodies’ tongues wagged and ears flapped, either spreading on dit or eagerly listening for a succulent tidbit to pass along to their cronies.
Some claimed wealth and power the ruin of human decency. Jessica, however, believed the tongue far more destructive.
As she slipped onto the terrace, the brisk night air hit her with the force of a wet towel thrown in her face. The temperature was such a drastic contrast to the over-heated ballroom, and she gasped in surprise. A shiver skittered across her almost-bare shoulders and slithered down her spine as she swept a wary glance about the deserted verandah and lawns.
Good. No one she must avoid or offer explanations to about her hasty departure from the festivities. No one to raise a haughty eyebrow in askance. No one else to judge her.
Constantly surrounded by people since she’d come to Town, she simply needed a few moments alone to compose herself. Unlike the practiced and polished members of the le beau monde, Jessica hadn’t acquired the ability to disguise her feelings and reactions behind a mask of disdainful politesse. She doubted she ever would, and she couldn’t claim remorse for the deficit.
Her dratted expressive eyes gave away her every thought. She might as well blab them aloud, so transparent was she. Or so her sister, now the Duchess of Sutcliffe, claimed. In point of fact, Jessica wasn’t altogether positive she’d be better off if she’d been able to master such a facade anyway. Plainly put, she wasn’t deceptive by nature.
Her gloved hands wrapped about her shoulders to help ward off the sharp chill, she hurried forward rather than return to the crowded ballroom, with its abundance of sweaty bodies, cloying perfumes, and stifling atmosphere.
Stealing a few calming minutes outdoors, gathering her equanimity, and reining in her seething temper wouldn’t result in a chill or ague. Possessed of a robust constitution, she rarely suffered from illness.
Wrestling her anger into submission might take more than a few minutes, truth to tell. Much more, such restrained fury simmered behind her ribs. No, she mightn’t be dishonest by nature, but she did have a temper when incited. And, by damn, she’d just been provoked mightily.
Guilt poked her for silently swearing. Her parents would be mortified. Jessica gave a mental shrug. Sometimes an expletive was required, if only in one’s thoughts, and despite being swathed in virginal hues.
Even with the mansion’s windows aglow, her pale gown—unfortunately similar in color and style to those worn by every other insipid debutant present tonight—stood out in stark reprieve against the night’s crisp darkness.
An image of dressed-up dolls on display came to mind—ladies on the Marriage Mart. Paraded before potential husbands, the misses’ qualifications—or lack thereof, in her case—were easily attainable with a murmured request in the right ear.
She’d have preferred a rich emerald or royal purple gown, but young women were expected to appear pure and untouched in their shades of whites and ivories. Innocent. Unspoiled. Untouched. Bah. What poppyswallop and baldercock.
Or was it poppydash and balderswallop?
Jessica shrugged. What difference did it make? What did matter—a great deal, truth be told—was that she mustn’t do anything untoward to draw the acrid eye of an Almack’s peeress or other noble.
Such as slap the faces of tart-mouthed, mean-spirited chits. No matter that they heartily deserved a harsh, public reprimand.
To do so would’ve brought immense satisfaction. Oh, indeed, it would’ve done. She tightly pursed her lips. Alas, immense censure, too. Disapproval, she could ill afford, more’s the pity. Not that she’d give a hen’s tail feather about what anyone thought about her.
Well, she might care a little, but not enough to change who she was. Such artifice sickened her. A grimace pulled her mouth downward.
Still, Jessica had promised to try to conform. She wanted to embody the epitome of decorum. To display pretty manners and modesty. Truly, she did.
Fine…not truly. But she did strive to—to the degree she wouldn’t knowingly disgrace herself or her family—and she still might also enjoy a lovely time. For London did offer ever so many entertainments and distractions. One Season ought to see her curiosity satisfied. Then back to the country for her, where she could be herself again. Where she wouldn’t have to worry about every word or action.
Briskly rubbing her arms, Jessica wet her lower lip. As nippy as the outdoors was, she’d welcome a glass of lemonade or ratafia. She’d become quite parched while dancing in the ballroom’s sweltering heat.
Her partners thus far had been amicable, the dancing passably good. She wasn’t a nymph on her feet, so she didn’t hold her partner to a higher standard than herself.
In fact, unable to locate her sister, brother-in-law, or a friend to accompany her, she’d decided—perhaps unwisely, she grudgingly admitted to herself—to make her way to the refreshment tables in search of a much-needed glass of…anything.
That was another silly rule. Why a young woman couldn’t traverse a room milling with people without a chaperone did not make sense.
A most unpleasant encounter with a trio of claws-bared females had detoured her from her goal, and now her thirst remained unquenched. Three smugly satisfied female faces paraded before her mind. God save the poor chaps who ended up married to those mean-spirited shrews.
Prior to that, she’d genuinely been having a grand time, her youthful bashfulness no longer a constant, exasperating presence. Why, her dance card bore the names of several gentlemen—including no fewer than three dukes. And although undoubtedly not the belle of the ball, she couldn’t complain that her first official foray into Polite Society was a dismal failure.
She permitted the tiniest little proud smile to arc her mouth. It seems she truly had outgrown her shyness. Not that she’d ever be outgoing or seek attention. A diamond of the first water she was not, nor did she have any desire to be. Not that she was a dowd, by any means.
Though appropriately white, her gown, with its delicately embroidered overskirt and seed pearls, was a confection straight from a fairytale, as was her sapphire parure and her intricately styled hair.
Theadosia, her dearest sister, vowed the sapphires exactly matched Jessica’s eyes. Not exactly. Her eyes were green-blue. Nonetheless, she quite felt like a princess, silly as that might seem.
As a little girl, she’d always pretended she was a princess. Only, as an innocent child, she’d believed a charming prince would fall madly in love with her. Never mind she was a humble vicar’s dowerless, youngest daughter.
Not dowerless any longer.
She shoved the intrusive thought aside and resumed her fanciful reverie. Dowerless worked better for her daydream, and fairytales weren’t based in reality, after all. It was much more romantic to wed for love than to be bartered off for a substantial marriage settlement, a title, or a parcel of land.
Her handsome and oh-so-entrancing prince would place her before him on his magnificent white steed—for fairytale princes must always ride white steeds—and they’d gallop away into the burnished sunset to live happily, passionately ever after. Because, quite naturally, happily-ever-afters required passion.
A wry smile tilted the edges of her mouth.
Twaddle, rubbish, stuff and nonsense. The whole of it.
Jessica had been all of ten when she first realized marriage was often something far different than happily-ever-afters. Nevertheless, good fortune did fall upon a lucky few, like her older sister, Theadosia, and her adoring husband, Victor.
They boasted friendships with several prominent peers and could be credited with her pleasant reception and acceptance into le bon ton so far. Almost everyone she’d met had been agreeable, if a trifle stuffy, formal, and exuding self-import.
But the upper ten thousand held pompous, elevated opinions of themselves and believed everyone else ought to as well. They also hid their true characters behind facades. At least, that was her perception of them thus far. Most were harmless, but a few—like the viper-tongued Medusas she’d just overheard—were the embodiment of cruelty and spite.
She couldn’t abide tattlemongers in any form. People who had nothing better to do than spread rumors as casually as buttering warm toast. Or who were such miserable wretches they sought to make themselves feel better by disparaging others. The worst of the chinwag lot, however, were those that contrived on dit simply because they enjoyed the trouble their tarradiddles wrought.
Such were despicable, contemptible dolts, and she had no patience for them or their nastiness. Nor did she have any desire to be their target, which meant she’d need to return to the ballroom before her next dance.
Pulling her eyebrows together, she studied the elaborate fan-shaped dance card.
If she recalled correctly, this set remained unclaimed. She’d be remiss to leave a partner searching for her. Such inconsideration wouldn’t do. Not when she must remain above reproach. Already, dishonor hovered about her family like a soiled gray mantle.
Initially, she’d been eager to leave Colechester behind, mistakenly believing the mortifying shame and humiliation of Papa’s disgrace would lessen with a bit of distance between her and the parish he’d stolen from. How wrong she’d been.
It was almost as if le beau monde was waiting, watching, expecting her family to misstep, and if they inadvertently did, those lofty denizens would pounce like a panther on a defenseless gazelle.
After perusing the dance card in the filtered light, Jessica relaxed a fraction.
Yes, she was free for the next thirty minutes. However, the dance afterward was promised to Crispin Rolston, the enigmatic Duke of Bainbridge. The arresting nobleman had positively flummoxed her by explicitly requesting that particular waltz.
She scrunched her forehead further, uncertain why a degree of unease coiled in her belly, making her shudder in apprehension.
Bainbridge was a pleasant enough chap. Quite dashing, actually, if she were wholly honest. Oh, very well. Extremely dashing. From the moment she’d laid eyes upon him, she thought so. She’d encountered him several times in the past year, and he’d grown impossibly more stunning upon each occurrence.
Why had God deemed the male of the species should be the more attractive? It was most unfair. As a young girl of perhaps eleven or twelve, she’d voiced that thought to her mother. Mama had laughed and said that was often true of birds but not necessarily of humans and other animals.
The Duke of Bainbridge made her sweet, pious mother into a liar.
His rakish smile could melt a glacier. And those eyes. Lord, those magnificent eyes. Quicksilver gray, they shone with a seductive gleam that had stolen her breath more than once.
Not, by Jove, that she’d ever admit such a thing. Vicar’s daughters didn’t entertain such notions. Seductive gleam? Stolen breath? She shook her head in self-reproach but allowed her mind to wander a bit longer.
Bainbridge’s wavy, dark-blond hair—a lovely shade similar to sugared pecans—had a tendency to fall over his noble brow, enhancing his devil-may-care roguishness. His sculpted cheeks, angular jaw and chin, striking, almost severe eyebrows—several shades darker than his hair—and the sharp blade of his nose all added to his masculine appeal.
He was tall, of course, but not overly so. She didn’t have to crane her neck to meet his startling eyes. And he had nice hands: clean nails, square tips, a light smattering of honey-colored hair across the knuckles.
Couldn’t he have one flaw? Crooked teeth? Long nostril hair? Bad breath? A squeaky voice?
Honestly, she was hard put to find a single fault in his appearance. Neither, evidently, could the dozens of other simpering, ogling women continually surrounding him. To Jessica’s credit, she didn’t blink like a fly had landed in her eye, turn lobster red, or trip over her tongue in his presence. He was, after all, just a flesh-and-blood man.
Yes, but such a scrumptiously attractive one.
If she could’ve scolded her subconscious for stating the obvious, she would’ve done so.
But it was his voice, such a deep, resonant timbre, she found nearly irresistible. Jessica could listen to him speak for hours. Did he sing? She thought he might with that voice—as rich as melted chocolate. She’d never sat close enough to hear him when the hymns were sung the few times he’d attended Sunday services.
Placing her palms flat on the balustrade, she breathed out an exaggerated sigh. Crispin, Duke of Bainbridge, in all his sleek, male glory, was precisely the stuff of which fairytale heroes were made.
No. He isn’t!
She narrowed her gaze at his name, scrawled across her dance card in penmanship as indolent as the scoundrel himself. Bainbridge was exactly the type of wicked libertine and philanderer Papa had always warned his daughters against.
Handsome. Wealthy. Confident. Privileged. Charming.
Rakehell. Roué. A man about town. Heartbreaker. Scoundrel.
Papa’s list of unfavorable characteristics went on considerably longer. Pages longer. And yet, her own father, a clergyman, couldn’t cast stones. Not with the burden of his own sins made so very public. In truth, the duke was the more honest of the men. He didn’t hide his flaws behind piety.
Bainbridge was an aristocrat who drew women of every station and status to him like plump, fragrant summer blossoms enticed, clumsy nectar-drunk bees. If his allure weren’t so awfully pathetic to witness, she might find female reactions to him amusing.
Elderly dames batted their stubby eyelashes while thrusting out their saggy bosoms, hoping for a kind word or one of his devastating smiles. Married women and widows curved their painted mouths upward seductively and slid him inviting glances.
Precisely what those invitations entailed, Jessica refused to ponder, lest her cheeks heat with blistering color. Blushing debutantes and calf-eyed wallflowers observed his every move with something akin to hunger—or huntresses stalking their unsuspecting prey.
Albeit, he couldn’t precisely be stalked when he knew full well—exploited, even—the enticing effects he had on women.
Extraordinarily, as much as she could appreciate his attractive outward trappings—she did have perfectly good vision, after all—Jessica had never been physically attracted to him.
Except for the difficulty in breathing on occasion. And my irregular pulse that one time.
She pressed her lips tight. Fine. Thrice.
And then there was the time your tummy went all wobbly, her annoying conscience gleefully reminded her.
Bah! She’d made it a point never to let her guard down around Bainbridge. To do so was utter idiocy. He was a seducer of innocents. A hedonist. A man with a new mistress or lover every month.
Or so she’d heard whispered. Not always in shocked disapproval, either. No, often there’d been yearning, possibly even a morsel of admiration, in those covert discussions.
While Jessica might have a tendency toward shyness and was by no measure a woman of the world, she assuredly was not an empty-minded fool, either.
She wasn’t worried about standing up with him, however. On the once beautifully chalked dance floor, in full view of all, he’d be required to act the gentleman. Point of fact, she’d never known him to do otherwise with her, despite his reputation as a debauchee.
A particular friend of her brother-in-law, Bainbridge wasn’t bacon-brained enough to attempt anything untoward and risk Victor’s wrath. In any event, he’d never shown the least interest in her.
Of course, Jessica had spoken to the duke previously, just the two of them. Several times, in truth. Had, in fact, bested him at a game of Pall Mall a few weeks ago. Why come to think of it, he still owed her an ice from Gunter’s as her prize.
Oh, he’d better not think to renege, the cad.
She meant to collect on that ice. Or a sorbet. Mmm. She shut her eyes for a blink, imaging the deliciousness melting on her tongue. Sorbets were even more scrumptious than ices, particularly the lemon-flavored frozen treat.
She adored almost anything flavored with lemon. Lemon curd, lemon drops, and lemonade amongst her other favorites.
Upon reflection, she concluded Bainbridge had probably only signed his name to her dance card as a favor to Victor. But of course. That made the most sense. She suspected as much of a few of the other gentlemen who’d also requested dances.
Not that she minded.
Far better to be partnered out of obligation than to lurk with the sad-eyed wallflowers gazing wistfully, sometimes sullenly and enviously, at the other misses enjoying themselves. In truth, she’d expected to be amongst the wallflower ranks, but she should’ve known Theadosia and Victor would assure she was not.
They, and the Duchess of Pennington—the sister of her bosom friend, Ophelia Breckensole—would never permit her to pine away as an onlooker at the ball. Ophelia’s twin, Gabriella, the new Duchess of Pennington, no doubt played a not-so-subtle part in encouraging gentleman to seek a dance with Jessica as well.
She didn’t mind their interference since affection motivated them. They were dears, one and all. Ophelia would be wondering where she’d disappeared to, though. Jessica shouldn’t linger too much longer.
As she made her way to a secluded corner and leaned against a balustrade overlooking a quaint, walled garden alit with lanterns, beyond which lay what must be a hothouse, she pressed her mouth into a prim line and permitted her shoulders to slump. Slivers of iridescent moonlight bathed the garden and a figure-eight-shaped pond in a shimmering, silvery glow. The picturesque scene almost appeared fairylike.
Snorting, she shook her head and rolled her eyes heavenward. There she went again with her fairytales. She was much too old to harbor such nonsensical fancies.
A toad’s throaty croak echoed from the vicinity of the foliage edging one side of the pond. Its raspy calls reminded her of the humble parsonage in Colechester where she’d spent her girlhood. A wave of homesickness and an intense longing to see her parents engulfed her.
It would be at least a year, likely two or three, before she saw them again. At times, she felt such a burden to Victor and Theadosia. She’d been foisted upon them as newlyweds. They never complained, but Jessica felt she was an imposition.
A shiver scuttled up her spine, and she renewed rubbing her arms.
How very different her life had been less than a year ago.
Before scandal had sent her disgraced father to an Australian penal colony to minister to criminals. How stupid and naïve she’d been to believe the on dit wouldn’t follow the Brentwoods from Colechester to London.
A well-respected solicitor, her brother, James, didn’t give a fig what Society thought. Her eldest sister, Althea, had eloped several years ago and was happy as a grig with her husband and children. And, of course, Theadosia had made a love match with Victor, the Duke of Sutcliffe.
No one looked askance at the Sutcliffe and didn’t reap the consequences.
Jessica, alone, had the most to lose from the ugly murmurings—namely, a respectable match. But she wasn’t altogether keen on landing a husband, unless she loved him. Her mother’s and sisters’ marriages had given her high expectations. Perhaps, unrealistic expectations. Fairytale expectations.
But why shouldn’t she desire love? Wait for love?
Without love, how did one forgive? Find contentment and happiness? Bear the heartaches and difficulties life served up more often than not? With a loving spouse, someone to support and encourage, a man she could trust her deepest secrets and innermost desires to, she could be more than satisfied.
Even when Mama had railed at Papa because of the shame he’d brought upon the family, she’d never stopped loving him. She’d willingly accompanied him to Australia, leaving her grown children behind. Leaving Jessica with Theadosia. Because a single woman, even accompanied by her mother and vicar father, had no place amongst hardened convicts.
With deliberate intent, she inhaled a deep, cleansing breath of chilly air. As she exhaled, she released her concerns. It was too early in the Season to be mooning about such piffle.
If she didn’t meet a man who looked at her the way Victor regarded Theadosia, or the Duke of Pennington gazed at Gabriella, the world wouldn’t tilt on its axis, nor would the sun fail to rise.
At almost twenty, she wasn’t quite on the shelf or in her dotage. There was yet time. Not all would agree with her assessment. Breeding years and all that claptwaddle.
Inhaling the cleansing air again—it was most invigorating—she deliberately tried to turn her thoughts to more pleasant musings. A Come Out and a Season had never crossed her mind, even after Theadosia married Victor. He’d generously dowered her, too.
Now, here she was. In London. At a posh ball. With a new wardrobe, a sizable settlement, and about to launch into her first Season. Not the merest bit terrified.
Fine, perhaps a trifle nervous.
The breeze toyed tauntingly with the curls on either side of her face.
Uh-hum, mocked that perturbing voice that never permitted her to lie to herself.
Very well. She was entirely out of her element but determined to do her best. For Theadosia’s benefit. And Victor’s. And, yes, even for James’s sake, too.
Damned, dashed nuisance to have such a rational conscience.
She had been having an enjoyable time earlier. Much better than she’d anticipated, until she’d overheard that trio of sharp-clawed she-cats gossiping about her and Theadosia. Or, more on point, about Papa’s public dishonor.
Positive they’d seen her approaching the refreshment tables, in sotto voce voices, they’d tittered and feigned shock about his embezzlement of church funds and the subsequent gambling away of said monies. Of nearly finding himself defrocked. Of Theadosia almost being forced into marriage with a horrid reprobate.
Fresh humiliation stabbed Jessica, and she swallowed. Or tried to. Her throat truly was dry.
She’d make sure to drink a glass of lemonade before her waltz with the duke, else she’d not be able to converse without croaking worse than the amorous amphibian in the garden.
“There you are.”