Authors: Jennifer McNare
When Only a Rake Will Do
By Jennifer McNare
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, organizations and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as factual. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, businesses, or persons is completely coincidental.
Text Copyright © 2014
All Rights Reserved
Cover Image by
Jenn LeBlanc / Illustrated Romance
Eighteen-year-old Daphne Hewitt hummed softly to herself as she exited the library, her mood cheerful and upbeat as she made her way from the rear of the house toward the front staircase. Carrying a well-thumbed copy of
Snow-White and Rose-Red
by the Brothers Grimm, she entered the foyer of her family’s London residence just as the front door swung closed.
“Did we have a visitor, Hughes?” she asked, eyeing the uniformed butler curiously. It was just a few minutes past eight o’clock in the morning, much too early for callers.
Hughes, their butler for as long as she could remember, nodded his graying head. “Yes, my lady, Lord Blackburn just took his leave.”
“Lord Blackburn,” she repeated, repressing a shudder of distaste. “Whatever did he want?”
“He was here to see your brother, my lady,” Hughes replied, “though I do not know the exact nature of their business.”
“I see. Thank you, Hughes.” She hesitated for a moment and then turned in the direction of her brother’s study. Unfortunately, Edward Duntton, the Earl of Blackburn, owned the property just east of Huxley Hall, the Hewitt family’s country estate. As such, he along with his family had been longstanding acquaintances. However, since the death of her parents and the subsequent death of the earl’s wife, Eliza, all within the past two years, they’d mercifully had little contact with the odious man. So what business did he have with Thomas now she wondered as she traversed the narrow hallway, especially at this hour?
Knocking softly upon the door to his study, she waited for her brother, the current Viscount Huxley, to bid her enter.
“What is it?” Thomas called from behind the door.
Turning the brass knob, she pushed open the door and stepped inside. “Good morning, Thomas,” she greeted pleasantly.
Looking up from the sea of papers scattered atop his desk, he addressed her in a clipped tone. “What is it, Daphne?”
Pushing the door closed behind her, she stepped further into the room. “You’re up early this morning,” she remarked as she approached his desk, noting as she drew closer her brother’s haggard appearance, his eyes both puffy and bloodshot. That in itself wasn’t altogether unusual, for Thomas habitually kept late hours, at times not arriving home until the wee hours of the morning and drunk as a wheelbarrow more often than not. It
unusual, however, for him to be out of bed before mid-afternoon.
“An astute observation,” he replied acerbically.
She ignored his derisive tone, for she had grown woefully accustomed to his increasingly sour moods over the past months. “I noticed Lord Blackburn leaving just now,” she said without preamble. There was no point in beating around the bush, for even at his best her brother had never been one for idle conversation.
Thomas eyed her dispassionately. “Have you come to provide me with a catalog of your first-rate observations this morning or was there something else you wanted?”
Daphne sighed internally. Though Thomas had never possessed an overly pleasant disposition, his temperament had become increasingly churlish of late. And while she fought the sudden urge to lift the inkwell from the desk and hurl it at her brother’s head, outwardly she retained her composure. “Considering the hour, I couldn’t help but wonder as to the nature of the earl’s visit.”
Thomas took a deep breath and then loudly exhaled, regarding her broodingly for a moment. Then, leaning forward in his chair, he interlaced his fingers and placed his hands atop the cluttered desk. “I had intended to speak to you this evening, but I suppose that now is as good a time as any.”
“Speak to me about what?” she asked, feeling a sudden, uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“The earl has asked for your hand in marriage,” Thomas stated in a dispassionate, matter of fact tone.
Daphne’s eyes went wide.
“And I have accepted on your behalf,” he continued evenly, his expression entirely devoid of emotion.
“You what?” Daphne exclaimed, gaping at her brother in astonishment. “Surely you cannot be serious.”
Though his jaw tightened perceptibly, his expression remained impassive. “The settlements have already been agreed upon.”
“Thomas, how could you?” she uttered in disbelief, her tone registering both shock and horror.
“As your legal guardian it is my duty to see you wed.”
“To Lord Blackburn?” she cried indignantly. “Have you completely taken leave of your senses?”
Thomas slapped his palms onto his desk and rose to his feet. “Edward Duntton is an earl, and a wealthy one at that,” he snapped. “By God, you should be thanking me, you ungrateful chit.”
“Thanking you?” Her tone was incredulous. “The man is utterly repellent, a lecherous swine,” she exclaimed. “Not to mention old enough to be my grandfather.” In fact, the widowed earl
a grandfather, three times over if she wasn’t mistaken.
Thomas was visibly angry now. “Daphne-”
“No!” she declared defiantly, shaking her head. “I would rather die than marry the Earl of Blackburn.”
“Damn and blast!” Thomas was around the desk in a flash. Coming to a halt directly in front of her, he grasped her arm, glaring down upon her. “
will do exactly as you are told, sister,” he growled menacingly.
Daphne jerked her arm out of his grasp and took a step back. “I won’t!”
Thomas glared at her for a moment and then abruptly raised his arm, backhanding her across the face.
Daphne reeled backward, the book she’d been holding falling to the floor with a muted thud. Stunned, she raised her hand to her burning cheek as tears stung the backs of her eyes. Thomas had never struck her before, in fact no one had, not ever.
They stared at one another in deafening silence for a moment, Thomas seeming almost as surprised by what he’d done as she was.
Then, raking his fingers through his hair, Thomas turned away and walked back to his chair, sinking down heavily onto the padded leather seat. “You
marry him, Daphne,” he said finally, his tone flat. “You have no choice in the matter, and neither do I.”
Lowering her hand from her face, Daphne followed him with her eyes. What did he mean
had no choice?
“Sit down, Daphne,” Thomas said, motioning to one of the two armchairs that fronted his desk. “Please,” he bade, when she remained standing.
Daphne hesitated a moment, then did as he said, dropping onto the tufted cushion as she studied his face. Something was wrong, very wrong. “What have you done, Thomas?” she asked apprehensively, noting an initial spark of defiance in his blue-eyed gaze as she searched his face. But then, little by little, his expression turned to one of resignation.
When he spoke his voice was disconsolate. “I’ve lost everything.”
Daphne’s stomach dropped. Regrettably, upon the sudden deaths of her parents and older brother, the entire bulk of their family’s wealth had fallen unexpectedly into her imprudent brother’s ill-equipped hands. “What do you mean
?” she prompted, fearing that she already knew the answer to her question.
Thomas leaned back in his chair and threw up his hands. “The money, the townhouse…all of it.”
No, he couldn’t possibly mean
, “Huxley Hall?” she breathed, forcing the words from her lips. He couldn’t possibly have lost their ancestral home, could he? Though it wasn’t entailed, the property had been in their family for five generations.
Thomas merely nodded.
Daphne gaped at her brother, her thoughts spinning in a dizzying whirl. Dear lord, it was worse than she’d feared, much, much worse. She had long-suspected that Thomas had been frequenting the high-stakes gaming establishments that catered to London’s wealthy upper class, but she’d never dreamed that he would be so reckless and foolhardy as to gamble more than he could afford to lose. But clearly he had. And now, now he expected
to pay for his unconscionable idiocy by marrying the loathsome Earl of Blackburn. For several long moments she was simply too dumbfounded to speak.
“Why Blackburn?” she finally asked, eyeing him fixedly. “Surely there must be another solution.”
“There isn’t.” Thomas’ tone was bleak.
Daphne’s eyes narrowed, her forehead wrinkling in confusion. “Why not?”
“Because the miserable bastard has purchased all of my outstanding markers,” Thomas replied indignantly.
Daphne blanched. “Why on earth would he do that?” she queried apprehensively.
Thomas paused for an instant and then tipped his head meaningfully in her direction.
She felt sick, bitter bile rising up in her throat.
“If you don’t marry him he’ll take everything. We shall all be turned out onto the street with little more than the clothes upon our backs.”
Daphne closed her eyes, fighting back tears as the full impact of Thomas’ words gradually sank in. If it were only her and Thomas she would have chosen that option without question, but it
just the two of them. She had her precious, much-loved younger sister to think of as well, ten-year-old Charlotte.
sorry, Daphne,” Thomas said quietly.
You should be sorry, you selfish, drunken wastrel, she wanted to shout back at him. You’ve condemned me to a life of misery. Dear God, married to the Earl of Blackburn, she could scarcely imagine a worse fate. Unbidden, his image appeared behind her closed eyes. Astoundingly, the earl’s physical appearance was only slightly less abhorrent than his odious personality. With a balding pate, dark beady eyes and a bulbous nose that dominated his ruddy face, his substantial girth only added to his overall unattractiveness. But for Daphne, it was his detestable nature that she found most objectionable of all.
She could still recall with vivid detail the time he’d caught her alone in the library of Huxley House when she was just fifteen years old. With a houseful of guests, including his wife not more than a stone’s throw away, the contemptible wretch had drunkenly tried to accost her. She shuddered at the memory, recalling the sickly smell of his brandy-soaked breath as he’d advanced upon her, backing her into a corner, eyeing her like a dog salivating for a bone as he’d grasped her arm and pulled her toward him. And then, in the next instant, the vile obscenity he’d uttered when frightened and confused she’d kicked him in the shin, broke free of his meaty grasp and dashed from the room. Afterward, it was due only to her reluctance to cause strife between their neighboring families that she had kept the unsettling incident to herself.
In the ensuing years she had done her best to avoid the earl and to put him, as well as his reprehensible behavior, out of her mind, succeeding for the most part. If only he’d done the same, she thought morosely, for clearly the old reprobate wanted her now, just as he’d wanted her then. Taking a deep, steadying breath to control her roiling stomach, she opened her eyes and looked up at her brother. “You’re certain there is nothing else that we can do?”
Thomas shook his head, his expression grim.
“Fine,” she said a few seconds later, her voice barely audible. “I’ll do it.”
The relief on Thomas’ face was unmistakable.
But not for you
, Daphne added silently.
I’ll do it for Charlotte.
What choice did she have, when she was the only thing standing between her frail, sweet-tempered sister and abject poverty? “How long do I have before…” she trailed off, unable to get the remaining words past the growing lump in her throat.
“Blackburn doesn’t want to announce the engagement until the end of the Season.”
Daphne blinked in surprise. That was still months away, for the Season was not yet underway and wouldn’t begin for several more weeks. “Why does he want to wait?” she asked hesitantly, tamping down her initial surge of relief. If the earl didn’t wish to announce their engagement right away, there had to be a reason.
As Thomas spoke, outlining the earl’s intent, Daphne could only listen in incredulity. To her utter amazement, the man was even more loathsome than she had given him credit for.
“Well, so much for fairytales and happy endings,” Daphne uttered woefully as she entered the privacy of her bedchamber a short time later. Looking down at the worn copy of
Snow-White and Rose-Red,
she tossed it
onto her bed, her composure finally crumbling as the tears she’d fought to hold back for the past quarter-hour finally began to fall. Sadly there would be no charming prince in
future and certainly no happily ever after to look forward to.
Walking across the carpeted floor, she moved to the padded window seat that overlooked the rear garden. Dropping wearily onto the rose-colored cushion, she turned her teary gaze to the outdoors, her mood as bleak and austere as the dark grey clouds that loomed in the sky above. “Oh, Mama, what am I to do?” she whispered aloud, though Elizabeth Hewitt wasn’t there to hear her. Her dear, sweet mother was dead, as were her father and eldest brother, George, their lives cut tragically short by an outbreak of Cholera a year and a half ago. Tragically, only she, Thomas and Charlotte had escaped the devastating illness that had decimated their small, tightknit family.