Angelo Evans, the Earl of Bolton made a promise to his mother—that he’d marry before Christmas. As this would be the last Season he would ever enjoy, Angelo is determined to embrace all of life’s pleasures: brandy, women, and gambling. Come the autumn, he will find a miss, marry, become respectable, and settle into a boring existence.
Lady Octavia Kepple is finally free. Now out of mourning, she intends to embrace the Season as only a respectable widow can: find a lover. She doesn’t want just any lover, but the gentleman rumored to be the best lover in England, the Earl of Bolton. Now, she just needs to convince him to be her rake for the Season.
Though intrigued by Lady Kepple’s proposition, and his desire for her cannot be denied, Angelo doesn’t want to be tied to one lover during his last Season of freedom. However, Lady Kepple is most persistent, and an agreement finally reached might be more than either of them bargained for.
London, England, April 1817
Lady Octavia Murphy, formerly Tilson, and now the widow Countess of Kepple, paused at the top of the grand staircase. She took a deep breath and tried to push aside her nervousness. She had not attended a ball in a year and a half. What was once familiar, now seemed foreign, yet full of opportunities never allowed previously.
How many of those gathered below recalled how she had become a widow?
Most likely all, she answered herself. Every person who had turned to look when she and her sister were announced held expressions of shock, disappointment, curiosity, or disapproval. Then there were the matrons who had lifted their fans and earnestly whispered behind them.
“Is this even wise?” Lavinia, her sister asked.
The two stood side by side. Both widows, and both returning to London after being in mourning.
“Yes.” Octavia lifted her chin. “I will not remain in Westmoreland to be hidden away at Clarington Abbey as if I am ruined or ashamed. That is where we have been for over a year, and I am in no hurry to return.”
“Yes, but if we receive no invitations, why remain in Town?”
“We will receive them if for no other reason than to be gossiped about.” The ton could never turn their back on a good scandal and her family had offered them a few already. They were probably anxious to see what her family did next, not that she would be the subject of new gossip. The old was bad enough.
“The Season has been in full swing for a sennight, and this is the first ball to which we have received an invitation.”
Octavia was well aware. “Perhaps nobody knew that we had returned to Town.”
“We have only been invited here because it is in honor of Crispin and Vanessa’s marriage.”
It had come as quite a shock when her brother announced his betrothal to Miss Vanessa Claxton, and a part of Octavia was still amazed it had happened even after watching them take the vows earlier. Though the courtship may have been short, her brother was in love, and for that reason, Octavia was happy for him. As for herself, she would never marry again.
“As it is the bride’s uncle, the Duke of Arscott, hosting the ball and welcoming us, I do not believe that we will be shunned this year,” Octavia assured her sister. “I am also certain the situation will change now that Leopold has finally come to Town.” Leopold, the Duke of Claybrook, was their younger brother, older twin to Crispin. One did not snub a duke or his family, especially when said duke was a bachelor in need of a wife. Though Leopold may argue that last point, he was soon to be eight and twenty and could not put off his duty much longer.
With a notch of her chin, knowing her worth and connections, Octavia grasped the satin skirt of her teal gown and descended to the crowd. Former friends she recognized, though she was uncertain if they were truly former, or if they had simply lost touch and would renew their acquaintance once again.
Only time would tell.
She also spotted one of her newest friends in the crowd, Elizabeth Cates, Lady Andover, also a widow. It had been a chance meeting in Hyde Park, just after the family had arrived in London, that had helped settle some of her initial unease for the upcoming Season. They had become quick friends and Octavia had found herself confessing what she hoped would come from the Season when she had not even informed Lavinia of her intentions.
Lady Andover, in turn, had introduced Octavia and Lavinia to another group of widows and she would be forever grateful that they were accepted and invited into their ranks—the secret league of widows. She and Lavinia had attended meetings and enjoyed teas with the widows and had come to know and trust them. It was also because of those widows that Octavia found the confidence to enter a ball with her head held high and seek what she wanted for herself. They did not judge her. Further, nobody could understand her situation better than they. Though only Lady Andover knew what Octavia truly hoped to gain this Season.
“Sometimes I wonder at the purpose of it all,” Lavinia murmured.
“What?” Octavia questioned.
“Why attend the Season if we are not in search of husbands?”
“For the entertainment, and because of whom we might meet.”
“Why must we need to meet anyone?” Lavinia asked. “While we are forced to rely on the generosity of our brother, the only freedom from him comes with marriage, which is no freedom at all. Who else is there to meet if one does not wish to wed?”
Lavinia had been despondent of late, which had Octavia concerned. Where Octavia had gained further confidence through her association with the widows’ league, Lavinia had withdrawn, thinking them all quite mad. Lavinia believed her life over, despite what others had tried to convey, and attempted to convince her that there was still much to accomplish and enjoy especially when she was soon to be nine and twenty, barely a year younger than Octavia who would turn thirty in the coming weeks.
Except Lavinia had disliked Society even before she wed and resented that she could not pursue her passions simply because she had been born a female, easily dismissed, and not appreciated for her intellect.
“Had there been a child…” Lavinia trailed off.
“If it is a child you wish, perhaps you should reconsider marriage a second time.”
“Children were to have been my duty, or at least an heir. I am unable to provide that so it would be unfair to marry again.” Lavinia shook her head.
Lavinia’s lack of children was not her fault, but her husband’s, who often forgot he had a wife. After their marriage, he only visited her bed when he remembered that he needed an heir. Octavia was not certain her sister had marital relations more than once or twice a year given her husband had preferred the companionship of his male friends over spending time with his wife.
“At least when hoping for a child, the marriage bed was bearable. I have no intention of enduring such again without purpose.”
“Well, I for one intend on enduring,” Octavia quietly confided to her sister as they reached the foot of the stairs.
Lavinia grasped her arm and pulled her from anyone that might overhear their conversation.
“What do you plan to do?”
Poor Lavinia. She had been the one most mortified by the scandals that had plagued their family, but it had been because she preferred her private life to be just that and hated that all of Society was likely whispering about them behind fans. For those reasons, Octavia feared Lavinia’s response when she learned what Octavia had planned. She pulled her sister further from the crowd and into the gardens. It would not do for anyone to overhear their conversation, but at least Lavinia would school her features here and the reason Octavia had not told her in the privacy of their home.
“Are you thinking to marry again?” Lavinia asked with concern.
“No!” Octavia exclaimed. “Being a wife once was enough for me. I shall not be one again.”
“If you do not intend to marry…”
“I intend to take a lover, Lavinia.”
Color fled her cheeks as Lavinia recoiled in disgust. “Why?”
“There was a time that relations with my husband were pleasant, at least during those first few months and I quite enjoyed it when he came to my bed. I now wonder if it was all imagined, and if not, I wish to experience what I assume was passion again.”
Lavinia’s eyes widened and she stared at Octavia as if she had lost her sanity. “It was your imagination. Of that I am certain. You could not have enjoyed all that…”
“Do you never ache, deep from within, a need that only a man can…”
As Lavinia’s eyes widened and her mouth grew slack with disbelief Octavia ceased trying to explain what she wanted.
Lavinia leaned in close. “We should not even be discussing this.” She quickly looked around.
“We are quite alone, nor are we talking above a whisper. I can assure you that nobody knows what I am about.”
“I truly cannot fathom why you would want to…” Her sister gave a shudder and Octavia was beginning to realize that not only had her husband not visited Lavinia’s bed often, but when he did, it had truly been an unpleasant experience for her. “You mean to do this?” Lavinia asked after a moment, her voice heavy with concern.
“I am not certain as of yet,” Octavia answered. “I do not want a dandy, an immature gentleman with selfish desires. I was already married to such. Instead, I want a man who not only knows how to find pleasure but how to give it as well.”
Lavinia only stared at Octavia as if she were speaking a foreign language that she had not learned.
“What I want is a rake with no intention of reforming.” And she intended to keep him—her rake for the Season.
“You are a respectable widow. How will you find such a gentleman?” Lavinia asked.
“By listening. Once I have determined who is considered the best, and most attentive lover in England, he shall be mine.”
“Just please, promise me that you will not be caught,” Lavinia begged. “Our family has already suffered enough scandal for a lifetime.”
“Never fear,” Octavia promised. “The first rule in taking a lover is discretion.”
“Rules? There are rules?” Lavinia’s voice nearly rose an octave with her questions.
“I have rules,” Octavia clarified. “Ten to be exact, which I settled upon after watching Society all these years. I can assure you that when this Season ends, no one will ever know that I at any time had a lover.”
“One lover? Not several,” Lavinia clarified.
Octavia allowed a smile. “One, for now. We will see what progresses beyond. This Season, instead of hunting for a husband as my first, it will be all about finding the perfect rake.”
Angelo stepped from beyond the bushes as the women returned inside, their voices fading. One was named Lavinia, but she was not the one in search of a lover. It was the other woman.
Blast, he had only been able to listen, not see, so he had no idea if the mysterious woman was wearing teal or emerald.
They turned once they entered the ballroom and Angelo hastened to catch up so that he could keep the two within his sights. He lifted a glass of wine from a tray as a servant passed and watched as the women crossed the ballroom, stopping only when they reached the Duke of Claybrook.
It was then that they turned, and Angelo could not help but grin. Lady Kepple was in search of a lover. Not just any lover, but an attentive one, which he most certainly was.
This would not be the first time that he had stood back and admired her midnight hair and light blue eyes or appreciated the fullness of her bodice. Lady Kepple had caught his eye her very first Season twelve years ago, when she had been Lady Octavia Tilson. They were of the same age, but as a female, she was required to wed, which she did that first year. As he was a gentleman, there was no rush.
Well, there had not been one until this year.
However, as this was his last Season, he was going to enjoy every moment, which included widows, brandy, gambling and all the sins of excess a gentleman could enjoy before he was forced to wed and his life came to an end. He would also look for a potential wife, as he had promised. However, Angelo had no intention of courting anyone until the end of the Season and through autumn, even if it meant traveling to her home. He would then propose in November, which would leave him just enough time to marry by Christmas.
Given Lady Kepple was in search of a lover, she would be the first of what Angelo hoped would be many, and he would prove to her that the pleasantness she experienced once upon a time was not imagined and that intimacy could be far more than merely pleasant.
Rules! Lady Kepple had mentioned rules and he was quite interested in learning what they were, and if any were worth breaking.
He sipped the wine while he continued his study.
The first rule she mentioned was discretion, and one that he could fully support. After all he never kissed and told. If a lady mentioned his name, he’d not deny an encounter, but he would never be the first to speak of what may have been shared, and no matter how much the lady may confess of their activities, he never confirmed details.
In fact, he never did anything overtly scandalous in the eyes of the ton. While at functions, he was respectable, danced with misses ready to wed as well as widows looking for bed sport. Some widows he escorted into gardens, but only at their request. Sometimes he even left a ball with a widow, but again, only at their request. He simply wished to please whether it meant that they met secretly or did not care if all of Society knew.
Now, the woman that he had desired over the years wished for a discreet lover and Angelo would be quite happy to be of service.
“I hear you are to wed by Christmas,” Percy Grey, Viscount Shrewsbury said as he came to stand beside Angelo. Shrewsbury was a cousin, his mother being the sister to Angelo’s father. With him was Jordan Trent.
“Marriage is far more enjoyable than I ever thought possible,” Trent offered.
“You must say that because you are married to our cousin,” Shrewsbury retorted.
“I would not lie.” Trent placed a hand over his heart.
Angelo believed him. Trent had been a rake of the first order until he met Audrey. Then he had a complete change in behavior. But such instances were rare.
“Are you considering one of Claybrook’s sisters?” Trent asked.
Lady Kepple did have two younger sisters who were on the marriage mart, but they were not the ones who had captured his attention.
“I am not considering anyone yet.”
“I understand their names were on a list your mother drew up.” Shrewsbury laughed.
“My mother has a bloody list?” Angelo asked with irritation.
“Yes, as does my mother. They worked on it together.”
“Are you being forced to wed this year as well?” Angelo asked.
“No. My mother is just hopeful that I will do so.”
Angelo studied the Tilson family. Besides Claybrook, who he knew, were the two younger sisters, two older sisters and the duke’s twin, Crispin, who had wed Miss Vanessa Claxton earlier that day. It was then that he realized that he’d not seen the family last year and didn’t know why.
“I had heard that the family was going to remain away this Season as they had the last,” Shrewsbury observed.
“Lord Crispin’s wedding is probably what brought them all to Town,” Trent said. “I wonder if they will remain or will they be driven away. Their family abhors gossip more than any other and would rather remove themselves from Town than be the topic of any conversation.”
Angelo frowned. “Gossip?” He knew there was something in the past but could not recall. He hated gossip and chose not to listen whenever possible.
“They had another brother, Millard,” Shrewsbury said.
“Ah, yes, the one who tried to kill Donovan MacGregor because he wanted Lady Claresta Copeland for himself.” Angelo did hear that bit of gossip. It was impossible not to know because that was all anyone spoke of for weeks.
Is that why they had stayed away? Fear that the gossip would continue into the following Season. They should know well enough that old gossip quickly faded when more scintillating tales came to light.
“They took Millard to the country to be watched over instead of sending him to Bedlam. The fact that his brother is a duke kept him out of Newgate Prison,” Trent said. “He ended up getting away from the footmen who were to guard him, took a horse and while attempting to make a jump, fell and broke his neck. He died instantly.”
“That was a year and a half ago. There has certainly been other gossip-worthy events since. Several,” Shrewsbury said.
“That is not all,” Trent said. “Within a month of Millard’s funeral, the husbands of the two oldest sisters, the Earl of Kepple and Marquess of Teviot, were deep in their cups. One insult led to another, and before anyone realized what was happening, the two met on the field of honor and ended up shooting each other. The sisters became widows at the same time.”
Ah, so that was how she became a widow.
“The family avoided the Season last year because the oldest sisters were in mourning and the others didn’t wish to be the focus of gossip again,” Trent said.
There had been far worse scandals suffered by those in Society, and there was one potentially brewing if anyone learned that the oldest sister intended on taking a lover this Season, which explained why discretion was her very first rule.
Even if his mother wished for him to consider the two younger Tilson sisters, Angelo could not because he had every intention of bedding Lady Kepple.
However, before he proceeded, he should probably learn what her other nine rules were.
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