They are known as the Rake Slayers… Tired of the different standards applied to the men who flout society’s rules, three young ladies seek a little primitive justice and hatch a plan to bring a few of London’s most notorious rakes up to snuff before refusing them. But they soon learn exactly what it is that makes rakes so dangerous.
An Excerpt from Chapter One...
They were a scurrilous bunch. Three highly marriageable young ladies thoroughly dissatisfied with their lot—a veritable tempest of ennui waiting to explode in rebellion. Gina gazed fondly at her two companions. Cecelia’s ink-black head was bent in apparent concentration over her tambour frame, and Claire, as fair-haired as her twin was dark, was fighting to keep her eyes open as she half read a salacious novel that had somehow escaped the watchful eyes of her mother. Gina shook her head. Looking at the three of them, who would have guessed what restless turmoil lurked below the deceptively placid surface?
Cecelia tossed her needlework aside with disgust. “I’m bored,” she said, summing up the situation succinctly, if unimaginatively.
Claire smiled softly, her eyes still clouded with the vestiges of the afternoon nap she’d taken in her chair. “How can you be bored, dearest?” she asked. “The season has only just begun.”
Cecelia ignored her younger (by ten minutes) sister and stood up.
“You could play the pianoforte,” Gina suggested.
Cecelia put her hands on her hips, her mouth drawn in a tight line. “I always play the pianoforte.”
“Then work on your watercolor,” Gina countered indifferently, knowing that when one of Cecelia’s moods hit, she was virtually impossible to placate.
Cecelia gave her the evil eye.
Gina laid down her own needlework in a nice, neat pile. “Very well then, what would you like to do? You haven’t alphabetized your offers in some time.”
“Do you really alphabetize?” Claire’s eyes rounded. She thought for a moment then nodded her head in apparent understanding. “I suppose it would be helpful as there are so many to consider. Father and mother are forever losing track of who has actually proposed. Perhaps you should advise them of your method?”
Gina looked at Cecelia and shrugged as if to say, “What can you do?” Claire was hopeless when it came to sarcasm—or any kind of subtlety for that matter.
“I’m tired of the same parties, the same drawing rooms, the same callers,” Cecelia lamented. “Nothing ever changes. Day in, day out, it’s all the same.”
Gina shook her head. Cecelia was only giving voice to what they all felt. Nevertheless, Gina felt it was her duty to rein in Cecelia before she did or said something outrageous. “What did you expect? That you would return from rusticating all winter in Staffordshire to an entirely new crop of suitors? The beau monde is rather limited in its members, Cece. As the daughter of a marquess, there are only so many suitable men to choose from.” Gina grinned. “Though Prinny is rather appallingly fond of you: perhaps you could ask him to create a few more peers to expand your realm?”
Cecelia shot her a look of mild disgust. She wasn’t too fond of her sobriquet, “The Queen of Broken Hearts.”
“As the daughter of a duke, your choices are even more limited, Lady Georgina Beauclerk,” she said tartly. “I see your barely concealed grimace when you are partnered by the same men dance after dance. And you’ve had two seasons to choose to our one, so don’t pretend you don’t know to what I am speaking.”
“It’s appalling,” Gina mocked. “The dusty shelf of spinsterhood looms ever closer.”
“Jest all you want, but there is talk. Five proposals, five rejections over two years is ‘not the thing’ at all. I would think you would be aware of this today of all days.”
Gina grimaced, properly chastised. Today was her twentieth birthday, though she was doing her best to ignore it. Cecelia was right. Gina wasn’t completely immune to the gossip. But she would not settle for a husband just to satisfy the likes of some narrow-minded dowager with nothing better to do than tally the numbers of proposals per debutante each season.
Satisfying her father, the Duke of St. Albans, however, was another matter. Gina knew her time to make a decision was running out, but having tasted freedom, she was reluctant to relinquish it. For years she had managed her father’s many properties with little interference.
She bit back the feelings of bitterness. His recent marriage had changed all that. She didn’t blame him for remarrying; her mother had been gone for almost ten years now, but did he have to choose Lady Louisa Manners—a woman not much older than herself? A young woman intent on staking her claim to the household. And usurping all the tasks that Gina took pride in. Left with little to do for the last few months, Gina had felt utterly rudderless.
She shook off the unhappiness caused by thinking about her new “mama” and turned back to Cecelia. “So what do they say about ten rejections in one season?”
“Twelve, counting the two in the country,” Cecelia corrected automatically, scowling when Gina smirked.
“I feel utterly pathetic with only three,” Claire chimed in.
“Chin up, love,” Gina teased, patting Claire’s hand. “Give it some time. You still have an entire year before you reach the lofty age of twenty.”
“It’s not just the men,” Cecelia continued. “It’s everything. Sometimes I feel like I’m being smothered by rules: ‘That is just not done, Lady Cecelia’ or ‘You mustn’t do that, Lady Cecelia,’” she mimicked in the haughty, slightly bored tone universally adopted by the ton’s matrons. “My every movement, my every conversation is controlled by what is deemed proper for a well-born, fashionable young lady.”
She was right. Society was a tough, unforgiving taskmaster. “But what is the alternative?” Gina asked. “Would you ignore society’s dictates and end up like poor Lady Alice?”
All three girls fell silent, the unfortunate fate of their friend appallingly fresh in their minds.
Claire broke the silence. “There does seem to be something patently unfair between what is acceptable for a lady and what is acceptable for a gentleman. Lady Alice was forced to flee to the wilds of Scotland”—she shuddered dramatically at the very idea (who in their right mind would want to go to Scotland!)—“to escape scandal, yet Lord Coventry is welcomed at whatever ball or assembly he deigns to attend. Outwardly Lord Coventry is condemned as a rake, but the condemnation is tinged with admiration.”
Gina and Cecelia’s eyes met again, both struck by one of Claire’s rare moments of insight. With her sweet disposition and innocent naïvety, it was sometimes easy to forget that Claire was a thoughtful young lady.
Cecelia’s face darkened. “Rakes. Rakes. Rakes. If I hear that word one more time, I swear I’ll—”
“Don’t swear, darling,” Gina chided. Turning to Claire, she whispered, “She’s still not over ‘The Incident.’”
Cecelia bristled. Her chin lifted haughtily. “I don’t know to what you are referring, Lady Georgina.”
“I think she’s referring to the Duke of Beaufort, dearest,” Claire said helpfully.
Gina giggled. Cecelia looked as if she could strangle her sister.
“Come now, Cecelia,” Gina said soothingly. “That was last year. You still cannot be—”
“Don’t you dare lecture me, Gina. You were not made the laughingstock of the season.”
“I’d hardly call you the laughingstock of the season,” Claire said. “There was that other incident when Lady Penelope tripped down the stairs and landed at Prinny’s feet with her skirts bunched around her ears and her bottom wide for everyone to see.” She wrinkled her nose. “Or should I say her wide bottom for everyone to see?”
Cecelia threw her sister a venomous glare. “You aren’t helping, Claire. Beaufort made a fool of me and I’ll never forget it.”
The vehemence in Cecelia’s tone stopped Gina’s teasing cold. She sobered. The Incident had obviously affected Cecelia much more than Gina had realized. Cecelia’s pride had taken a vicious beating. As the reigning beauty, and an heiress to boot, Cecelia was not used to men who did not drop at her feet in besotted supplication.
The Duke of Beaufort—the leader of the Hellfire Rakes club and a man renowned for his exquisite taste—had taken her down a peg or two when he’d declared within perfect earshot of many a young buck, “Attractive enough if you like a chit right out of the schoolroom.” But far worse was when he looked at his sensuous, well-endowed paramour in pointed comparison. He’d turned his quizzing glass on Cecelia’s more modest bosom. “I confess I don’t see what all the fuss is about.” It was obvious that this arbiter of beauty found Cecelia’s willowy figure sadly lacking.
“I’m sure everyone has forgotten,” Gina offered optimistically, while knowing that it was unlikely. Not when the duke never missed an opportunity to remind the ton of his unique opinion of Lady Cecelia Leveson-Gower, cherished daughter of the Marquess of Stafford. Gina took Cecelia’s hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “I know you were badly maligned, but it’s nothing compared to what happened to dear Alice.”
Cecelia’s face lost some of its angry color. “You’re right, of course. Poor Alice, caught in the wicked embrace of a notorious rake.” Her voice turned suddenly impassioned. “Don’t you ever get tired of the different standards? Why is certain conduct wrong for a lady, but not for a gentleman? There were two people caught in scandalous dishabille in Lady Wallingford’s garden.”
Even the normally forward-thinking Gina was shocked by the suggestion that the same standard might apply to men and women. The differences between what was permissible between girls and boys had been ingrained in her since childhood. Since the first time Gina was punished for tearing her dress climbing a tree and her male playmate was praised for his athleticism—though he hadn’t climbed nearly as high as she had, she recalled smugly. On some level Gina had recognized the unfairness, but simply accepted it as a fact of life. Cecelia never accepted anything.
What Cecelia suggested was veritable societal heresy. But thought-provoking nonetheless. Not that she’d encourage Cecelia by admitting it. “Nonsense,” Gina chided. “Don’t be ridiculous. There are many benefits to being a young lady.”
“Like what?” Cecelia challenged. “A young man can hunt, gamble, sport, drink, meander at will from club to club, keep a mistress or two. What can we do?”
“Ladies take pride in their many accomplishments. We sew, play music, paint, sing—”
“I’m sorry to disagree, dearest,” Claire interrupted. “But I think Cecelia has the right of it. Having a paramour sounds infinitely more exciting than playing the pianoforte.”
“Why shouldn’t we have a bit of fun?” Cecelia prompted.
Gina immediately grew wary. She knew her friend too well. “What kind of fun?”
“I don’t know.” Cecelia thought a minute before her frown lifted into a naughty grin. “We could play a little game.”
Claire clapped her hands. “Oh, I love games.”
“Let’s hear the rules first, Claire,” Gina cautioned.
“I think it’s high time that Beaufort and his Hellfire cohorts get their due.” Cecelia drummed her fingers on the top of the mahogany sideboard. When the tapping stopped and she saw the expression on Cecelia’s face, Gina braced herself for what was coming next. “What’s the worst thing that could happen to a rake?” Cecelia asked.
“Hmm. He could pass out on the road from too much drink and get run over by a carriage?” Claire posited.
“Or lose his estate in a hand of cards?” Gina suggested, but she could guess where Cecelia was headed.
Cecelia shook her head. “Worse. Much worse. He must fall in love. Become utterly and thoroughly besotted. We shall choose three of the most notorious rakes and see if we can bring them up to snuff.”
“I may be nearing the shelf, but I could never marry—” Gina started.
“Of course we won’t accept. The challenge is simply in procuring the proposal. Since we can’t record it at White’s we’ll have to make our own betting book, with a wager befitting the importance of the challenge.”
“But what if they find out?” Claire said.
“Leave it to me,” Cecelia dismissed with a wave of her hand. “No man will know what we are about.”
“It’s not only the men I’m worried about.”
Cecelia turned to her sister and frowned. “Stop worrying, Claire. You sound like Gina. We’ll keep it a secret.”
“Why?” Gina asked suspiciously. “Why should we do something so… mean-spirited?”
Cecelia’s eyes fired. “Mean-spirited?” She huffed. “Hardly. It’s nothing compared to the sport these rakes make of us on a daily basis. I’m tired of hearing about the goings-on of the Hellfire Rakes. Think of it as a bit of feminine justice. We’ll do it for all womankind.”
Gina laughed. “That’s a bit much, wouldn’t you say?” Though she could not deny that there was a certain primitive justice in what Cecelia proposed.
Cecelia shrugged. “You want justice for Alice, don’t you?”
“Certainly.” But Gina hesitated. A tiny disloyal part of her wondered whether Alice hadn’t gotten precisely what she’d bargained for. Coventry did not hide his character, if anything, he flaunted it. Involvement with Lord Coventry was a dangerous proposition.
Gina recalled the first time she’d seen the Earl of Coventry at the theater early in her first season. His dark, fallen-angel looks had sent her girlish heart racing in a fierce patter. Tall and broad-shouldered with dark, wavy hair, his features, even from a distance, were strong and classically handsome.
One look at his companion, however, was enough to erase any romantic notions she might have had about him. The bright-colored gown, the shocking décolletage, the heavy paint. The man escorted his paramour as openly as if she were the queen. Discreet inquiries had confirmed her first impression. Except when the gossip surrounding his wild escapades demanded her attention, Gina had barely given him another thought.
Even if Coventry had seduced Alice, she had to know the type of man he was. Even Claire knew the type of man Lord Coventry was. Gina shook off the disloyal thoughts. Alice had been wronged. “I don’t know if this is the best way—”
“What other way can you think of? There’s a certain poetic justice in beating a rake at his own game, don’t you agree? These are men who play fast and loose with a woman’s virtue without thought. Well, we shall give them something to think about the next time they are tempted to ruin a young lady.” She turned to her sister. “Claire will do it, won’t you Claire?” She didn’t bother waiting for an answer, knowing full well Claire would agree to anything she suggested. To Gina she argued, “I know you are just as bored as I am with the men who frequent Almack’s and the ton’s ballrooms. You’ll see. It will be fun.” She smiled sweetly. “But if you’re not up to the challenge…?”
Gina bristled. She was well aware that Cecelia was manipulating her, but it didn’t make the ploy any less effective. Gina prided herself on proficiency. If she put her mind to it, not much would stand in her way. Certainly not a debauched roué. Cecelia was right. It was tempting to do something to avenge poor Alice. And though it had just begun, the season was already the same dull round of balls and assemblies.
Cecelia continued on as if they all were in agreement. “We shall form a club.”
“A club?” Gina said, aghast. “Whatever for?”
“I thought we were going to keep it a secret,” Claire added, but Cecelia paid her no mind.
“Men have clubs for everything, why shouldn’t we? White’s, Brooks’s, Boodles, the Four-Horse, and this latest manifestation of the Hellfire Rakes club. I, for one, should like to know what goes on at Wycombe.”
“Wycombe?” Claire asked.
Gina’s eyes narrowed at Cecelia for bringing up such an inappropriate subject in front of her sister. She turned to Claire, answering with as little information as possible. “That’s where the Hellfire Club has its meetings. Amongst other things,” she mumbled vaguely. “We’re not supposed to be aware of the caves at Wycombe.” She turned on Cecelia. “You best not let anyone hear you talking about such things.”
Cecelia wasn’t listening. “There are so many of the blasted creatures.” Her nose wrinkled as if she’d caught a whiff of something foul. “We might need more recruits. And we shall need some help from the other ladies, of course.”
Claire’s eyes rounded. “I thought you said—”
“Trusted friends only.” Cecelia cut her off, scowling at her as if she was ruining the game. “Never mind that for now. First things first, we must have a name.”
“How about the ruined fools?” Gina suggested. “Or the spinster’s folly?”
Cecelia shot her a hard glance. She tapped her chin. “I have it! We shall call ourselves The Society for the Hindrance of a Rake’s Progress.”
Claire giggled at the allusion to Hogarth’s engravings. “Wonderful. But there’s just one thing I don’t understand, who qualifies as a rake?”
“Lord Coventry for one,” Gina said.
“Beaufort for another,” Cecelia snarled. “Certainly all the Hellfire members: Lord Percy, Lord Rockingham, Lord Petersham, Lord Ponsonby, Lord Ashley, Mr. Dashwood. But it is not simply enough to call oneself a rake. Rakes are also identified by their conduct.”
“How so?” Claire asked.
“Well for one, you’ll never see a rake willingly cross the threshold of Almack’s. And if they do attend a ton function it is always with a new paramour.”
Claire’s eyes narrowed over her tiny nose. Something was obviously bothering her. “Are they handsome?”
Cecelia nodded, the grave expression on her face belied her gentle teasing. “Of course.”
“By definition, a rake must be handsome,” Gina agreed gamely.
Claire looked skeptical. “Are you sure?”
“Quite sure,” Cecelia stated emphatically.
“Quite,” Gina confirmed.
Claire appeared to be warming up to the idea. “What else?” she asked.
“Hmm. Rakes are notorious gamblers; they drink bottles and bottles of port, and above all they are vile debauchers of women.”
Claire grimaced. “That doesn’t sound very promising. No wonder they don’t marry, who’d want them?”
“Poor dears,” Gina agreed, but the sarcasm was utterly lost on Claire.
Gina studied her naïve friend, suddenly concerned. In many ways this would be like sending a lamb out to a pack of wolves. “Rakes are very wicked and extremely devious,” she warned. “You must be on your guard at all times. A rake will do his utmost to compromise you without marriage.”
“Of course, we’ll have to be on the watch for anything untoward.” Cecelia said cheekily.
Gina threw her a quelling stare. Just because she’d been kissed three times to Gina’s two, Cecelia thought herself the most experienced of the group. “It will do no good to allow the gentleman to sample the milk before he has purchased the cow,” Gina said primly.
Claire muffled a giggle with the back of her hand.
“Careful, darling, your country roots are showing,” Cecelia warned. To Claire she added, “One more thing. A rake avoids an unmarried debutante like the plague.”
“Just so long as it’s easy,” Gina murmured dryly.
Cecelia raised her teacup high in the air. “To slaying dragons—or should I say, to slaying rakes.”
Gina gazed at the amber contents of her cup as she raised it to the others. Somehow tea seemed inappropriate for the occasion. “Shouldn’t we be drawing rapiers or something?” Gina asked wryly, but she knew Cecelia was right. A new challenge was just what Gina needed. By the time she was done with him, the poor blighter wouldn’t know what had hit him.
“Well, which one do you want?” Cecelia asked Gina, the frustration evident in her voice. “How about Lord Ashley?”
They’d been going on like this for nearly an hour, suggesting names with no consensus. Gina had to pick somebody. Lord Ashley was handsome enough, but she knew him—and had witnessed his lechery for herself. “No.” If she must woo someone, she might as well make it enjoyable. “No,” she repeated firmly. “I think perhaps Lord Ponsonby?”
Cecelia pursed her lips, displeased. It was obvious she had come to a similar conclusion herself.
“Is he the outrageously handsome one?” Claire asked.
Gina and Cecelia both nodded.
“Oooh. I think I should like him too.”
“I thought you might want Beaufort,” Gina suggested to Cecelia. “An eye for an eye and all that?”
Her cheeks flushed. “No. Of course not. I want a challenge, not an impossibility.”
If they kept going round and round like this it would take all night, and Gina had her party to get ready for. “I suppose the only fair thing would be to draw lots.”
“But that seems so horribly random,” Cecelia whined. “What if I choose someone I cannot abide?”
“This was your idea. Besides, you’re the one who said you wanted a challenge,” Gina pointed out. Deciding to limit their choices to the Hellfire Club, Cecelia rattled off a dozen of the worse offenders and Gina jotted the names on small bits of parchment and tossed them into Claire’s straw bonnet.
Claire pulled out the papers and folded them again. Her eyes sparkled with mischief. To Gina’s silent question she said, “We don’t want anyone cheating.” She glanced significantly to her sister who scowled, then asked, “Who gets to pick first?”
Gina groaned. If it was this difficult just to choose a name, it did not bode well for the rest of the game. “Wait a minute.” She had an idea. She opened the doors to the drawing room and motioned to a housemaid who was sweeping the carpet in the adjoining hall. Grabbing the broom, she flipped it around and removed three pieces of straw of differing length. Handing the broom back to the baffled maid, she closed the doors behind her. “We shall draw straws. The longest shall have the first pick.”
“But who should pick the first straw?”
Gina fought to contain her frustration. “Just pick, Claire.”
Claire smiled and chose the middle straw from behind Gina’s hand, pulling out the second-longest straw. Cecelia went next and picked the longest, leaving Gina with the shortest.
“I hope it’s an omen,” Cecelia said naughtily with a jaunty lift of her brow.
Gina pretended not to understand her ribald attempt at humor. She pushed the bonnet under Cecelia’s nose and shook it. “You’re first, so pick.”
Cecelia closed her eyes and dipped her hand into the hat. She removed the paper. Opening her eyes, she carefully unfolded it. “Mr. Ryder,” she said evenly.
Gina studied her expression carefully, but couldn’t tell whether Cecelia was pleased. Ryder was something of a mystery, but he didn’t seem a particularly bad sort—compared to his friends at least.
“My turn.” Claire plunged her hand in the hat and playfully dug around for a moment.
Cecelia rolled her eyes. “Just pick one, Claire.”
“I am.” Claire fished around for another moment or two then slowly drew out a slip of paper and opened it. The excitement drained from her face.
“Who is it? Did you get Lord Coventry?” Gina asked consolingly, knowing he was the lowest of the low. The most depraved of the depraved.
Claire shook her head.
“Then who?” Cecelia asked impatiently.
Almost apologetically, Claire handed the scrap of paper to her sister. This time Cecelia could not control her expression, her lips curled and flames sparked in her dark blue eyes. She looked angry and something else—maybe a bit jealous. “Beaufort.”
Gina winced. “My turn,” she said, dipping her hand into the bowl of the bonnet. Ponsonby, Ponsonby, she prayed silently, drawing out the slip of paper. She nearly groaned when she read the name staring at her in her own bold handwriting.
“Well?” Cecelia asked.
Gina balled the paper in her hand and tossed it into the fire. “It seems it falls to me to avenge dear Alice. For I’m to tame the very devil himself.”
End of Excerpt