England, Autumn 1801
“Thank God it’s almost over.” James Blakely mounted the stairs to go to bed at last. His parents had invited a gaggle of young heiresses and their parents to a fortnight-long party, with a view to arranging matches for their two elder sons—not for James yet, although his dreaded turn would come all too soon.
He’d enjoyed flirting with pretty, vivacious Thomasina Warren, the only interesting girl in the lot, but apart from that it had been a long, tedious couple of weeks. All the ladies and most of the gentlemen visiting Statham Court had retired for the night, leaving only his elder brothers and a few cronies drinking and playing billiards. Tomorrow they would all go home. “I’ve had enough of guests,” he muttered.
Since the only other person within earshot was a ghost, James received no response—not that the ghost had nothing to say, mind you. No doubt he had enjoyed a house party or two in his time, but at the moment he was in the throes of inspiration and needed James to transcribe a poem word for lovesick word. The ghost drifted quickly down the corridor and vanished through the door of James’s bedchamber, there to hover impatiently until James arrived.
Apart from the poems, the Cavalier ghost who haunted Statham Court was a jolly sort of fellow. Since he had helped James play many a trick on his brothers and their friends over the years, James could hardly refuse to aid him in return. As long as no one sees the reams and reams of doggerel and thinks I wrote it, thought James with a shudder.
He opened his bedchamber door upon an appalling sight.
A lady, standing next to his writing desk clad only in her nightdress, turned to him with a dazzling smile. “Mr. Blakely, how romantic.” She indicated the pile of papers he’d been working on that afternoon. “I didn’t know you wrote poetry!”
“I don’t,” he said, unable to stop himself from looking her up and down. She was so damned pretty—there was no denying he found her attractive—but good God, what if someone heard them? He shut the door softly and glared at her. “What the deuce are you doing here, Miss Warren?”
Thomasina Warren’s flush showed clearly in the light of a branch of candles. “I came to ask a favor of you.”
The ghost, who had removed his plumed hat in the presence of a lady, beamed and nodded at James.
“At midnight?” James snapped. “In my bedchamber?”
She blushed even more—and what a beautiful sight she was. “What better time and place?”
The ghost grinned widely. He mentioned midnight and bedchambers far too often in his execrable poems.
“For what?” James demanded, trying not to notice how enchantingly her chestnut hair tumbled about her shoulders.
“For…for love.” Her gaze flickered to the scattered sheets of bad verse. “Who is she, your inamorata?”
“My—my what?” He shook his head. “She’s not real,” and then, at a sudden gust of frigid air on his spine, “not alive, anyway. She’s the lady love of our resident ghost.”
“Ah, the dashing Cavalier I’ve heard about. That explains the slightly archaic feeling of the poems.” She took a deep breath. Her bosom rose and fell. “In that case, what I’m about to ask is acceptable.”
Nothing was acceptable about this situation. “Miss Warren, I do not wish to be discourteous, but this is most improper, and you must leave at once. Ask your favor of me tomorrow in daylight, in a less compromising location.”
She didn’t move. “Tomorrow will be too late.”
“A pity, but nevertheless you may not remain here.” He returned to the door, motioning with his chin, hoping to get rid of her without actually touching her. “Back to your own bedchamber. Now.”
Thomasina faltered a little, but instead of obeying, she approached, looking up at him with wide, grey eyes. Meanwhile, he struggled not to lower his gaze to her bosom, which jiggled as she moved. The ghost watched them, highly amused.
“Please don’t be upset, Mr. Blakely. It’s just a simple favor. I’m sure it can’t be difficult, as it’s done all the time.”
He gritted his teeth. “What is done all the time?”
“Carnal knowledge,” she said calmly. “Tupping, as my cousin Colin would put it.” His face must have shown his feelings, for she flapped a dismissive hand. “Yes, I know it’s improper of him to say such things in my presence, but you know what my family is like.”
Damn Colin Warren. He should know better—which hardly mattered right now. Hades, she couldn’t be serious!
“The Warrens are scandalous by nature and have been for centuries. Everyone knows that, so it’s practically expected of me to keep up the family tradition.” She hesitated, tipping her head to one side, as if assessing his growing dismay. “It’s quite simple, really. All I want is for you to ruin me.”
* * *
There! Thomasina had got the words out. Unfortunately, judging by the expression on James Blakely’s face, he didn’t intend to oblige her.
How mortifying. She was sure he found her attractive. During the fortnight of the house party, he had flirted with her far more than with the other ladies visiting Statham Court. What had happened to his crooked smile and the mischievous sparkle in his dark eyes?
He drew himself up like a starchy old grandparent. He was a handsome man, usually cheerful and fun-loving, and this scowl didn’t suit him. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Not at all,” she said. “I’ve thought it through, and it makes perfect sense. No one will be surprised, as all the women in my family are known for bad behavior.”
“The men in my family are not,” he retorted.
“True, but no one need ever know it was you who ruined me,” she said. “The thing is, I like you and find you very—very attractive, so if I must be ruined, I would far rather it be by you than anyone else.”
He ran a hand across his face. “That’s most kind of you, Miss Warren, but—”
She put up a hand to forestall him. “Do please hear me out. You needn’t fear discovery. I shan’t tell anyone for ages, so no one will suspect it was you. Then I shall set it about that I succumbed to a rake.”
His expression grew even more appalled. “For God’s sake, why?”
“Why a rake? Because everyone will believe it. That’s what scandalous women do.”
“No,” he retorted, “not why a rake. Why do you want to be ruined?”
“To render myself unmarriageable,” she said.
Briefly, astonishment replaced the annoyance. “You don’t wish to marry?”
She suppressed a huff. Typical man, he couldn’t imagine a woman who didn’t long to be someone’s—anyone’s—wife. “Heavens, no, but as long as I remain a virgin, my father will keep trying to find me a husband. If you knew the sort of gentlemen he chooses…”
“Yes, I saw him pushing you at a few bores at this party, and did my best to spare you their tedious company.” He shook his head. “I sympathize with you, Miss Warren, but never fear. Eventually the right man for you will come along.” He grimaced. “I mean the right man for you to wed.”
She huffed. “You’re as idiotic as the rest. Didn’t you hear what I said? I don’t wish to marry. Ever.”
He cast his eyes heavenward. He ran his fingers through his wavy, dark hair. He sighed. “If that is truly the case,” he said in the sort of voice one would use with a child, “then you should not attempt to seduce a respectable man.”
“Whom else might I seduce? The alternative is a rake, and I don’t find rakes the least bit appealing.”
“I’m happy to hear that,” he said. “But the fact remains, Miss Warren, that if I were to ruin you, I would then be obliged to marry you.”
“Why? If nobody knew about it, why should you?”
“I would know,” he said. “As an honorable man, I would have no choice. Since, like you, I have no interest in marriage, I am sure you understand.”
“Not at all. I would refuse to marry you, so then it wouldn’t be your fault, but mine, and all would be well.” She came closer, her breasts swaying under her nightdress, and gazed up at him. “Please?”
He made a strangled noise in his throat. Oh, dear God. She’d misjudged badly. Evidently he wasn’t tempted at all—merely enraged.
“Out. Now.” Using only the tips of his fingers, as if she smelled like bad fish, he propelled her toward the door. “I’ll keep an eye on you all the way to your room.”
“That’s not necessary,” she said.
“It is,” he said through clenched teeth. “There are a number of inebriated gentlemen in the house, and although you might be willing to use one of them for your utterly foolhardy purpose, it would be a stain upon the honor of Statham Court if I were to allow one of them to do so.”
How dare he suggest that she would do such a thing! It had been with great difficulty—considerable courage, actually—that she had brought herself to ask him.
He pushed gently at the small of her back. She jumped at the heat of his hand. Judging by the expression on his face, he would shove her bodily into the corridor if she didn’t comply.
She shook off his hand and stormed out the door.