Anthony Hamilton was born scandalous, and his reputation did not improve as he grew.
He was the only son of the earl of Lynley, but it was almost a proven fact that he was not Lynley's own child. Lady Lynley, a much younger woman than her husband, had not borne a child in the first ten years of her marriage, and then, out of the blue, gave birth to a strapping, handsome lad who didn't look a thing like Lord Lynley, nor any of the Hamiltons for that matter. Lynley had not repudiated his wife or the child, but the fact that Lady Lynley and her son spent most of their time away from Lynley Court seemed proof of…something.
Mr. Hamilton had been a thoroughly wild boy as well. He was asked to leave no fewer than three schools—mostly for fighting, but once for cheating a professor at cards. He had finished his education at Oxford in record time, then set himself up in London to begin a life that could only be called, in hushed tones, depraved and immoral. That was when he had stopped using his courtesy title as well; he no longer allowed people to call him Viscount Langford, as befitted the Lynley heir, but insisted on being plain Mr. Hamilton. That, combined with his regular appearances at high stakes gaming tables and the steady stream of wealthy widows and matrons he kept company with, painted him blacker than black, utterly irredeemable, and absolutely, deliciously, fascinating to the ton.
There was the time he wagered everything he owned, including the clothing he was wearing at the time, at the hazard table, and somehow walked away with a small fortune. There was his infamous, but vague, wager with Lady Nicols—no one quite seemed to know the precise details—which ended with Lady Nicols handing him her priceless rubies in the midst of a ball at Carleton House. There was the time Sir Henry Milton accused him of siring the child Lady Milton carried at the time; Mr. Hamilton simply smiled, murmured a few words in Sir Henry's ear, and within an hour the two men were sharing a bottle of wine, for all the world as if they were bosom friends. He was reputed to be on the verge of being taken to the Fleet one night, and as rich as Croesus the next. He was a complete contradiction, and he only inflamed the gossips' interest by being utterly discreet. For such a wicked man, he was remarkably guarded.
Celia Reece heard all the stories about him. Despite her mother's admonitions, Celia had developed a fondness for gossip in her first Season in London, and all the best bits seemed to involve him in one way or another. While Anthony Hamilton might not be—quite—the most scandalous person in London, he was the most scandalous person she knew, and as such she found his exploits hugely entertaining.
He had been friends with her brother David for as long as Celia could remember, and had often come to Ainsley Park, the Reece family estate, for school holidays. As he had grown more and more disreputable, he had stopped visiting—Celia suspected her mother banned him from coming—but she still remembered him fondly, almost as an extra brother. He had tied her fishing lines and helped launch her kites, and it gave her no end of amusement that he was now so wicked, young ladies were afraid to walk past him alone.
Naturally, his reputation meant that she was never to speak to him again. Celia's mother, Rosalind, had drummed it into her daughter's head that proper young ladies did not associate with wicked gentlemen. Celia had restrained herself from pointing out that her own brother was every bit as wild as Mr. Hamilton, but she had obeyed her mother for the most part. She was having a grand time in her first Season, and didn't want to do anything to spoil it, particularly not anything that would get her sent back to Ainsley Park in disgrace for associating with wicked gentlemen.
Fortunately, there were so many other gentlemen to choose from. As the daughter and now sister of the duke of Exeter, Celia was a very eligible young lady. The earl of Cumberland sent her lilies every week. Sir Henry Avenall sent her roses. The duke of Ware had asked her to dance more than once, Viscount Graves had taken her driving in the Park, and Lord Andrew Bertram wrote sonnets to her. It was nothing less than exhilarating, being courted by so many gentlemen.
Tonight, for instance, Lord Euston was being very attentive. The handsome young earl was a prime catch, with an estate in Derbyshire and a respectable fortune. He was also a wonderful dancer, and Celia loved to dance. When he approached her for the third time, she smiled at him.
"Lady Celia, I should like to have this dance." He bowed very smartly. He had handsome manners, too.
Celia blushed. He must know she couldn't possibly dance with him again. "Indeed, sir, I think I must refuse."
He didn't look surprised or disappointed. "I think you must as well. Would you consent to take a turn on the terrace with me instead?"
A turn on the terrace—alone with a gentleman! She darted a glance at her mother, several feet away. Rosalind was watching, and gave a tiny nod of permission, with an approving look at Lord Euston. Her stomach jumped. She had never taken a private stroll with a gentleman. She excused herself from her friends, all of whom watched enviously, and put her hand on Lord Euston's arm.
"I am honored you would walk with me," he said as they skirted the edge of the ballroom.
"It is my pleasure, sir." She smiled at him, but he merely nodded and didn't speak again. They stepped through the open doors, into the wonderfully fresh and cool night air. Instead of remaining near the doors, though, Lord Euston kept walking, leading her toward the far end of the terrace, where it was darker and less crowded. Far less crowded; almost deserted, really. Celia's heart skipped a beat. What did he intend? None of her other admirers had kissed her. Lord Euston wasn't quite her favorite among them, but it would be immensely flattering if he tried to kiss her. And shouldn't she have some practice at kissing?
Celia's curiosity flared to life, and she stole a glance at her companion. He was a little handsomer in the moonlight, she thought, trying to imagine what his lips would feel like. Would it be pleasant, or awkward? Should she be modest and retiring, or more forward? Should she even allow him the liberty at all? Should—?
"There is something I must say to you." Celia wet her lips, preparing herself, still trying to decide if she would allow it. But he made no move toward her. "Lady Celia," he began, laying one hand on his heart, "I must tell you how passionately I adore you."
She hadn't quite expected that. "Oh. Er…Oh, indeed?"
"Since the moment I first saw you, I have thought of nothing but you," he went on with growing fervor. "My will is overruled by fate. To deliberate would demean my love, which blossomed at first sight." He took her hand, looking at her expectantly.
"I—I am flattered, sir," she said after a pregnant pause.
"And do you adore me?" he prompted. Celia's eyes widened in confusion.
"I—Well, that is—I…" She cleared her throat. "What?"
"Do you adore me?" he repeated with unnerving intensity.
No. Of course she didn't. He was handsome and a wonderful dancer, and she probably would have let him steal a chaste kiss on the cheek, but adore him? No. She wished she hadn't let him lead her all the way out here. What on earth was she to do now? "Lord Euston, I don't think this is a proper thing to discuss."
He resisted her gentle attempts to pull free of his grasp. "If it is maidenly reserve that prevents you saying it, I understand. If it is fear of your family's disapproval, I understand. You have but to say one word, and I will wait a thousand years for you."
"Oh, please don't." She pulled a little harder, and he squeezed her hand a little tighter.
"Or you might say another word, and we could go to His Grace tonight. We could be married before the end of the Season, my dearest Lady Celia."
"Ah, but—but my brother's away from town," she said, edging backward. Euston followed, pulling her toward him, now gripping her one hand in his two.
"I shall call on him the moment he returns."
"I wish you wouldn't," Celia whispered.
"Your modesty enthralls me." He crowded nearer, his eyes feverish.
"Sweet Celia, make me immortal with a kiss!" Celia grimaced, and turned her face aside from his. She was never going to dance with Lord Euston again. What a wretched first kiss this would be.
"Good evening," said an affable new voice just then.
Lord Euston released her at once, recoiling a step as he spun around toward the intruder. Celia put her freed hands behind her, suddenly horrified at what she had done. Goodness—she was alone, in the dark, with an unmarried gentleman—if they were discovered here, she could be ruined.
"Lovely evening, isn't it?" said Anthony Hamilton as he strolled up, a glass of champagne in each hand.
"Yes," said Euston stiffly. Celia closed her eyes, relief flooding her as she recognized her savior. Surely he, of all people, would understand and not cause trouble for her.
"Lady Celia. A pleasure to see you again." He gave her a secretive smile, as if he knew very well what he had interrupted and found it highly amusing.
"Mr. Hamilton," she murmured, bobbing a curtsey. For a moment everyone stood in awkward silence.
"We should return to the ball." Lord Euston extended his hand to her, pointedly not looking at the other man.
"No!" Celia exclaimed without thinking. Euston froze, startled. She flushed. "I shall return in a moment, sir," she said more politely, grasping for any excuse not to go with him. "The air is so fresh and cool."
"Yes," said Euston grimly. He didn't look nearly so handsome anymore. "Yes. I see. Good evening, Lady Celia."
Celia murmured a reply, willing him to leave. "Good evening, Euston," added Mr. Hamilton.
Lord Euston jerked, darting a suspicious glance at Mr. Hamilton. "Good evening, sir." He hesitated, gave Celia a deeply disappointed look, then walked away.
Celia swung around, bracing her hands on the balustrade that encircled the terrace. Good heavens. That had not turned out at all the way she had expected. Why had her mother approved of him?
"That," said Mr. Hamilton, leaning against the balustrade beside her, "may be the worst marriage proposal I have ever heard."
She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. It didn't work. The giggles bubbled up inside her, and finally burst free. She pressed one hand to her mouth. "I suppose you heard everything he said?"
"I suppose," he agreed. "Including the part he stole from Marlowe."
"No! Really?" Celia gasped. He just smiled, and she groaned. "You mustn't repeat it to anyone."
"Of course not," he said in mild affront. "I should be ashamed to say such things aloud. It would quite ruin my reputation." Celia laughed again, and he smiled. "Would you care for some champagne?"
"Thank you." She took the glass he offered, and sipped gratefully.
He set the other glass on the balustrade and leaned on his elbows, surveying the dark gardens in front of them. "So you weren't trying to bring Euston up to scratch?"
"Don't be ridiculous." She snorted, then remembered she wasn't supposed to do that. "I would never have walked out with him if I'd thought he meant to propose."
"Why did you, then?" He glanced at her, his expression open and relaxed, inviting confidence. Celia sighed, sipping more champagne.
"He's a wonderful dancer," she said.
"And a dreadful bore," he said in the same regretful tone. Celia looked at him in shock, then burst out laughing.
"That's dreadful of you to say, but—but—well, perhaps he is."
"Perhaps," he murmured.
"And now he is probably telling my mother." She sighed. Walking out with Lord Euston, with her mother's permission, was one thing; lingering in the darkness with a man—let alone a notorious rake her mother strenuously disapproved of—was another. "I really should return."
"Did you want him to kiss you, then?"
She stopped in the act of turning to go. He was still facing the gardens, away from her, but after a moment had passed and she said nothing, he glanced at her. "Did you?" he asked again, his voice a shade deeper.
Celia drew closer. He turned, now leaning on one elbow, his full attention fixed on her. She didn't know another gentleman who could appear so approachable. She had forgotten how easy he was to talk to. "You mustn't laugh at me, Anthony," she warned, unconsciously using his Christian name as she had done for years. "I—I've never been kissed before, and it seemed like the perfect night for it, and…well, until he started demanding to know if I adored him, it was quite romantic. It was," she protested as his mouth curved. "We can't all be disreputable, with all sorts of scandalous adventures."
His smile stiffened. "Nor should you be."
"But you should?" She grinned, glad to be teasing him instead of the other way around. "Every gossip in London adores you, you know."
He sighed, shaking his head. "I'm neither so daring nor so foolish as they like to think. Perhaps you, as a pillar of propriety, can tell me how to escape their pernicious notice."
"Why, that is easy," she said with a wave of one hand. "Find a girl, fall desperately in love with her, and settle down to have six children and raise dogs. No one will say a word about you then."
Anthony chuckled. "Ah, there's the rub. What you suggest is more easily said than done, miss."
"Have you ever tried?"
He shrugged. "No."
"Then how can you say it's so difficult?" she exclaimed. "There are dozens of young ladies looking for a husband, you must simply ask one—"
He gave a soft tsk. "I couldn't possibly."
Celia's eyes lit. "That sounds almost like a challenge."
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, then grinned. "It's not. Don't try your matchmaking on me. I'm a hopeless case."
"Of course you're not," she said stoutly. "Why, any lady in London—"
"Would not suit me, nor I her."
"Miss Weatherby," said Celia.
"Lady Jane Cranston."
"Too…" He paused, his gaze sharpening on her as he thought, and Celia opened her mouth, ready to exclaim in delight that he could find no fault with Lucinda Alcomb, who was a very nice girl. "Too merry," he said at last.
"Who would please you, then?" she burst out, laughing at his pleasant obstinacy.
He shifted, his eyes skipping across the garden again. "No one, perhaps."
"You aren't even trying to be fair. I know so many nice young ladies—"
Anthony gave a sharp huff. "This is quite a dull topic of conversation. We've had very fine weather this spring, don't you think?"
"Anyone who took the trouble to know you would accept you," Celia insisted, ignoring his efforts to turn the subject.
"You've gone and ruled out every woman in England." He leaned over the railing, squinting into the darkness.
"Except myself," Celia declared, and then she stopped. Good heavens, what had she just said?
Anthony seemed shocked as well. His head whipped around, and he stared at her with raised eyebrows. "I beg your pardon?"
Heat rushed to her face. "I—I meant that I know you, and know you're not half so bad as you pretend to be."
His gaze was riveted on her, so dark and intense Celia scarcely recognized him for a moment. Goodness, it was just Anthony, but for a moment, he was looking at her almost like…
"Not half so bad," he murmured speculatively. "A rare compliment, if I do say so myself."
She burst out laughing again, relieved that he was merely teasing her. That expression on his face—rather like a wolf's before he sprang—unsettled her; it had made her think, for one mad moment, that he might, in fact, spring on her. And even worse, Celia realized that a small, naughty part of her was somewhat curious. No, rampantly curious. She might have let Lord Euston kiss her, but only for the satisfaction of being able to say she had been kissed. She had never expected to be swept away with passion by Lord Euston, who was, as Anthony had said, a dreadful bore. But a kiss from one of the most talked-about rakes in London…now, that would be something else altogether.
"You know what I meant," she said, shaking off that curiosity as shocking and obviously forbidden. "I know you've quite a soft heart, although you hide it very well. As proof, I must point out that you've stood out here with me for some time now, trying to make me feel better after receiving the most appalling marriage proposal of all time. David would have laughed until he couldn't stand upright, and then retold the tale to everyone he met."
"Ah, but I am not your brother," he replied, smiling easily although his gaze lingered on her face.
She was glad he couldn't see her blush. "No, indeed! But because you are not"she took the last sip of champagne from her glass before setting it on the balustrade—"I must return to the ballroom. I suppose you'll continue to skulk in the shadows out here, and be appropriately wicked?"
"You know me too well."
Celia laughed once more. "Good night, Anthony. And thank you." She flashed him a parting smile, and hurried away. Perhaps if she could make her mother see the humor, and idiocy, in Lord Euston's proposal, Mama wouldn't ask too many questions about where she'd been ever since.
Anthony listened to her rapid footsteps die away, counting every one. Seventeen steps, and then she was gone. He folded his arms on the balustrade once again, taking a deep breath. The faint scent of lemons lingered in the air. He wondered why she smelled of lemons and not rosewater or something other ladies wore.
"You gave away my champagne, I see," said a voice behind him.
Anthony smiled and held out the untouched glass sitting next to his elbow. "No. I gave away mine."
Fanny, Lady Drummond, took it with a coy look. "Indeed." She turned, looking back at the house. "A bit young for your taste."
"An old friend," he said evenly. "The younger sister of a friend. Euston was giving her a spot of trouble."
"Better and better," exclaimed Fanny. "You are a knight in shining armor."
Anthony shrugged. "Hardly."
"Now, darling, I wouldn't blame you." She ran her fingers down his arm. "She's the catch of the season. Rumor holds her marriage portion is two hundred thousand pounds."
"How do the gossips ferret out such information?"
"Persistent spying, I believe. Fouché's agents would have been put to shame by the matrons of London." Fanny rested the tip of her fan next to her mouth, studying him. "For a moment, I thought you had spotted your chance."
Anthony tightened his lips and said nothing. The less said on this topic, the better. The scent of lemons was gone, banished by Fanny's heavier perfume. "Have you?" pressed Fanny as the silence lengthened. She moved closer, her face lighting up with interest. "Good Lord. The greatest lover in London, pining for a girl?"
He turned to her. "She's just a girl," he said. "I've known her since she was practically a babe, and yes, I am fond of her. Fanny, you would understand if you'd heard what Euston was saying to her. I spoke as much to close his mouth as anything else."
"And yet, there was something else," she replied archly. He sighed in exasperation. She laughed, laying her hand on his. "Admit it, you've thought of it. She would solve all your problems, wouldn't she? Money, connection, respectability…"
He pulled his hand free. "Yes, all I would have to do is persuade the duke of Exeter to give his consent, overcome the dowager duchess's extreme dislike of me, and then ask the lady herself to choose me above all her respectable, eligible suitors. I don't take odds that long, Fanny."
She smirked. "She was a girl a moment ago. Now she's a lady." Anthony looked at her in undisguised irritation. Fanny moved closer, so close her breath warmed his ear. "I wouldn't fault you for trying, darling," she murmured. "It needn't alter our relationship in any way…in fact, why don't you call on me tonight…later…and we can continue that relationship."
"You'll want to hear the news from Cornwall, I expect."
Fanny pouted at his deliberate change of subject, but she let it go. "I don't believe I would have let you seduce me if I'd known you simply wanted me to invest in some mining venture." He cocked a brow at her. "All right," she gave in with a knowing smile. "I would have still let you seduce me, but I would have asked for better terms."
"I like to think we shall always be on the best of terms with each other." He brought her hand to his mouth and pressed his lips to the inside of her wrist. Fanny's expression softened even more.
"I suppose we shall. Interest terms…and other terms."
Anthony smiled, ruthlessly forcing his moment of gallantry from his mind, along with everything else related to Celia Reece. Fanny might make light of it, but he needed every farthing she would invest, and Anthony knew how to work to protect that.
He related the report from the mine manager, knowing Fanny, unlike many woman, truly wanted to know how her money was faring. She had a sharp mind for business, and they shared a profitable relationship. Their other relationship was almost as valuable to him—Fanny lived in the present, and didn't dwell on the past, especially not his past. That mattered a great deal to Anthony.
But when Fanny had gone back to the ball, Anthony found his mind wandering. Although Fanny was nearly fifteen years older than he, she was still a very handsome woman, with a tart wit and a marvelous sense of humor. She had a sophistication no young lady just making her debut could claim, and Anthony genuinely liked her. He liked the way her money made his financial schemes successful. He liked her acceptance of their intermittent affair with no recriminations or demands. But she didn't smell of lemons.
He pushed away from the balustrade, restless and tired at the same time. His plans for the evening had included some time in the card room, where he hoped to win a few months' rent, but he suspected he couldn't concentrate on his cards now. Damn lemons.
With a deep sigh, Anthony turned back toward the house. He repeated in his mind what he had told Fanny: Celia was just a girl; he spoke to her out of mere kindness. He tried not to hear the echo of Celia's words, that she was the only woman in England who thought him…how had she put it…'not half so bad as he pretended.'
He slipped into the overheated ballroom, lingering near the door. Without meaning to, he saw her. She was dancing with another young buck like Euston. Her pink gown swirled around her as her partner turned her, her golden curls gleaming in the candlelight. Anthony's gaze lingered on her back, where her partner's hand was spread in a wide, proprietary grip. The young man was delighted to be dancing with her—and why shouldn't he be? She beamed up at him, smiling at whatever he'd said to her, and Anthony realized, with a small shock of alarm, that she was breathtaking. No longer a child or a young girl, but a beautiful young woman who would walk out with a gentleman in hopes of a kiss and end up fending off a marriage proposal.
He turned away from the dancers, continuing on his way without another glance back. He wound his way through the crowd, out through the hall, pausing only to collect his things, then down the steps into the night. He kept going, past the lines of waiting carriages, strolling along at an unhurried pace through the streets of London. The early spring air was fresh and crisp; it was a lovely night to walk, but Anthony didn't walk to enjoy the weather.
At last he reached his lodging, a rented flat in a house just clinging to the edge of respectability. Up the stairs he climbed to his plain, simply furnished rooms. Since sinking most of his funds into the tin mines, he had had to cut his expenses to the bone. There was little of luxury or comfort in his rooms, certainly nothing to tempt a duke's daughter. His lip curled derisively at his own thoughts as he shrugged off his jacket and unwound his cravat. There was little of anything in his life to tempt any lady.
Except me, rang Celia's words in his mind. No lady in London would accept him…except me, whispered her voice. He unbuttoned his waistcoat and tossed it on a nearby chair. Everyone saw him as a wastrel and a hedonist…except me, whispered her voice. Anthony pulled open his collar and yanked the shirt over his head. His skin felt hot and prickly. "She's your friend's younger sister," he told himself out loud. "Practically your own sister." But it did no good.
He could still close his eyes and see Celia as a red-cheeked little girl, handing him the last scone from tea wrapped in a handkerchief. He could still hear her angry tears when her brother had insisted she stay behind while they went fishing. And he could still see the glimpse of ankle as she danced, the curve of bosom as she curtsied to her partner, and the gleam of moonlight on her blonde curls.
Anthony had liked Celia Reece very much as a girl, but he had never allowed himself to think of her as a woman. Ladies like Celia were not for him. And so long as she remained fixed in his mind as just a girl, everything had been fine. Tonight, though, he found with alarm that he could think of her as nothing but a woman—a young woman, to be certain, but a woman all the same. She had wanted to be kissed tonight, and Anthony knew just how easily he could have been the man to do it. Except me, echoed her voice again, and he remembered how her face changed when he looked at her then. She hadn't meant it that way when she said it, but he had seen the flush of awareness on her cheeks and the spark of interest in her eyes. And that awareness, to say nothing of the interest, just might have sealed his fate, forever ending any brotherly feelings he had for her.
He splashed cold water from the ewer on his face, letting it run down his neck and chest. Even if Celia would accept him, her family would never allow it. Surely not…except that the duke of Exeter had made a rather odd marriage himself last year, to a penniless widow from a country village. And Celia's other brother had married even lower. Lady David, Anthony knew, had been a common pickpocket at one time.
If the Reeces could overlook the lack of fortune, family, standing, and even respectability, perhaps…just perhaps…they could accept him as well.
Anthony Hamilton, widely regarded as the most scandalous rogue in London, lay down on his narrow bed alone, and contemplated having six children and raising dogs.