The Rake's Wicked Proposal

By: Carole Mortimer

Chapter One

‘Good gad! Is that you, St Claire?’

Lucian St Claire, having entered the coaching inn only seconds earlier, and feeling much relieved to at last be out of the relentless rain he had suffered for the last two hours, felt that relief replaced by a sinking dread as he easily recognised the boomingly jovial voice of the Duke of Carlyne.

‘It is you!’ The Duke strode forcefully down the hallway of the inn to where Lucian stood, removing his extremely wet greatcoat, a smile of pleasure lighting the older man’s features as he thrust a hand out in greeting. ‘Well met, m’boy!’

‘Your Grace,’ Lucian murmured softly, giving an abrupt inclination of his head even as he shook the proffered hand, his gaze dark and unreadable.

Deliberately so. He and the Duke had not met for almost two years, but Lucian knew that very shortly the Duke would remember the circumstances of that meeting, and the pleasure would fade from the older man’s face. It was a face that had aged considerably in the intervening years, making the Duke appear much older than the late fifties Lucian knew him to be.

Ah, there it was, Lucian recognised heavily. The frown. The flicker of pained remembrance in the eyes. Quickly followed by a forced return of the other man’s earlier pleasure in this chance meeting.

Lucian had suffered many such encounters since he had resigned his commission from the army almost two years ago. Too many. And neither time nor frequency had dulled the feeling of guilt he suffered at each such meeting.

For Lucian had survived five years in the army, only resigning his commission after that last bloody battle at Waterloo. A battle that had ensued after many Englishmen and women had thought Napoleon finished, routed, and incarcerated on the Isle of Elba. Only to have him escape that island to rouse his soldiers anew, renewing hostilities in a battle that had robbed Lucian of far too many brothers-in-arms. Most especially three fellow officers, his closest friends.

Including Simon Wynter, Marquess of Richfield, the Duke of Carlyne’s beloved only son and heir…

Lucian forced down the memories of his unhappy journey almost two years ago to the Duke’s estate in Worcestershire, where he had felt compelled to go in order to offer the Duke and Duchess his condolences on Simon’s death.

He had made similar journeys to several of the families of his slain friends, each of them harder than the last as, once his condolences had been expressed a certain look of resentment appeared on the faces of those families at their realisation that he, Major Lord Lucian St Claire, the second of the three sons of the deceased Ninth Duke of Stourbridge, had somehow survived whilst their beloved husband, son or brother had perished.

Lucian had felt no animosity towards those people for the emotion; how could he when he had so often been plagued with nightmares that made him, too, wish that he had not survived!

He decided it was time to take pity on the Duke of Carlyne’s confused expression. ‘You are visiting friends in the area, sir?’

‘Just come from spending a few days at m’brother Darius’s new estate in Malvern.’ The older man’s expression brightened as he thankfully grasped this innocuous subject.

‘I trust he is well, sir?’ It had been far less than two years since Lucian had last seen his friend Darius—only seven months or so. But a lot had happened to the other man in that time…

The Duke’s face took on a suitable look of melancholy. ‘Bearing up, don’t you know.’ A glint of rueful humour entered his eyes. ‘Some would say perhaps too well!’

There was an answering glint in Lucian’s gaze as it knowingly met the older man’s.

Lord Darius Wynter, Lucian knew, had taken himself a wife seven months ago. A Miss Sophie Belling, from the north of England. Her father owned several mills in the area, and so had been easily able to provide a more than generous dowry for his only child. It had not been a love-match, on either side: Miss Belling had wanted a husband with a title, and Darius had required a wife with a fortune. Conveniently—for Darius, that was—Lady Sophie had been killed in a hunting accident only a month after the wedding, leaving Darius in possession of the fortune but not the wife.

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