Email Annette

HOME

Annette Blair, NY Times & USA Today Bestseller

 

 

 

 

Undeniable Rogue

The Rogues Club--1st in the series of 4

A Regency Historical

An Excerpt

 

Excerpt

The Rogues Club, Book One

UNDENIABLE ROGUE

by Annette Blair

 

Prologue

Military Encampment

Night before the Battle of Waterloo

June 17, 1815

 

“Stare death down, Rogues, and take an oath to The Club.”

“The Rogues Club,” said the men.

Gideon St. Goddard cleared his throat. “Those of us blessed and cursed to survive, and remember, hereby vow to protect the families of those here, now, who go to their just rewards with the dawn.”

“Aye,” they all repeated.

Gideon nodded and read from the parchment they had composed together. “Every dead rogue’s widow, mother, sister, brother, ward, will be blessed with a family of rogues who provide for them. Every corporeal need—food, shelter, warmth against the cold, and when due: a spouse, an education or a living.”

“Aye.” The second response came stronger and held more conviction.

“Raise your flasks,” Gideon said. “And repeat after me. ‘We the members of The Rogues Club, so do vow.’”

After the vow, and a drink to seal it, cheers resounded and hands were shaken, so it hardly seemed possible that in a few hours any of them might meet their maker.

Soon, the men began to talk among themselves, exchanging information about their families, and Hawksworth approached him.

 

June 18, 1815

After Bonaparte’s Defeat

 

My dear Sabrina, if you read this, I have passed, yet the sun shines for me now that you are settled. As I vowed, I found for you a husband. With time running out, I exacted from him what amounts to a deathbed promise to wed and protect you.

He is the new Duke of Stanthorpe, honorable, and wealthy beyond your needs. Tell him of your enemy, I implore you, for he will help.

You suffered as the wife of my late half-brother, and for that I make recompense. I shall call you my beloved sister into eternity. Yours, Hawksworth.
 

CHAPTER ONE

London, November 3, 1815

 

By this time tomorrow, he would be wed.

Gideon St. Goddard, Duke of Stanthorpe, was having second thoughts. Though he approached his Grosvenor Square home for the first time in months, more dread than anticipation filled him, for beyond the black enameled door of number twenty three, his mystery bride awaited.

With a curse for fate and a tug on his horse Deviltry’s reins, Gideon slowed his pace, wishing the house stood empty of all but his few loyal retainers. Loyal—odd choice of words, especially for him. But, yes, they were, because he paid them well to be so.

Loyalty, constancy, fidelity; he did not possess the natural capacity to inspire those virtues, and he did not need another upon whom to test that ability and fail.

He did not need anyone.

Stanthorpe Place, tall, bright white and inviting in the gentle winter sun, was not his best nor his biggest home. But Gideon had chosen it to house the woman he had agreed sight-unseen to marry, because of its proximity to the pleasures of London. If worse came to worse and he found himself leg-shackled to an antidote, he could always send her to the country to rusticate and bear his progeny, while he remained in town.

The realization that he need not bother with her more than once or twice a year might actually serve to relieve his anxiety, if the specter of his parents’ almost-perfect marriage did not crook its come-hither finger so beguilingly.

At least, Grandmama was pleased about his marriage. After his estranged brother’s scurrilous and untimely demise, her letter informing him of his unexpected ascendancy to the title had caught up with him in Belgium on the eve of battle. Even now, the Grande Dame believed that her letter insisting he “Hie thee home and get thee a bride,” rather than the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo, had ultimately brought him back to England.

In actuality, her promise to make him her heir, if he did so, had more to do with it than her insistence, that and the mighty and mercurial hand of fate.

His coffers, while never empty, always needed topping-off. His first bride—though she never got quite that far—ran off with a wealthier bridegroom, reminding him that as far as money was concerned, one could never have enough. And Miss Whitcomb, according to her brother, needed a husband to protect her from a life of indigence. “So,” he told himself as he made his way ‘round to the mews, “‘tis all for the best.”

Nevertheless, as he left Deviltry to the eager stable-lad’s tender ministrations, Gideon’s heart beat like a drummer-boy’s timorous tattoo.

In an effort to divest himself of travel grime and don his best armor before meeting his intended, Gideon chose the service entrance so he could take the backstairs to his bedchamber.

In the kitchen, Cook was not to be found but a luscious wench looking set to pup shrieked when she saw him.

Arrested by an eerie sense of recognition, though he had never seen her before in his life, Gideon did not duck fast enough to evade the flour she tossed in guileless self-defense. Reduced to dusty ignobility, he bit off an oath that turned into a sneeze, and added spirited to luscious in his estimation of her.

Dusting flour from his shoulders, Gideon gave his attacker a slow sweeping perusal. Judging by the manner, if not the style, of her dress, the nymph was no servant. Round in all the right places, and then some, she obviously belonged to someone else. But who? And what was she doing in his kitchen?

“Where the devi—” A second sneeze diluted his vexation, to the point that Gideon sighed and gave it up. “Where is Cook?”

His attacker’s miffed mien turned sympathetic. “Oh, you must be hungry.”

Yes, he was, suddenly and inexplicably, but not for food, he decided, chagrined over his reaction to her. He did not normally lust after women in her interesting condition, though there had been that one incredible time.

Gideon cleared his throat. “And you are?”

He must appear as wide-eyed and assessing as she, he mused, even as he tumbled headlong into the bottomless depths of the most amazing violet eyes he had ever beheld. Sultry. Beguiling.

“S-Sabrina,” she said when the silence stretched nearly to snapping.

Shaken by the unlikely coincidence, Gideon waited without breath for her last name.

“Whitcomb. Sabrina Whitcomb.”

For the first time since the Battle of Waterloo, Gideon’s knees turned to jelly.

Behold his bride.

At first thought, the notion enticed, almost as much as it appalled. Yet he knew instinctively that if he took this woman to wife, his solitary existence would end in flames, for she burned bright and alive, and had the power to singe if he got too close.

And he would get close, by God, especially if she were his. Be damned to the burn.

Gideon lowered himself to a chair.

“You are hungry,” she all but cried, as she hurried to gather bread, cheese, and fruit, and fill him a plate.

Gideon added compassionate to her list of qualities, but not graceful, at least not in her delicate condition. Then again, delicate was not the word he would use to describe her. Lush, ripe, and blooming, he thought, yet with a naturally regal bearing, even now.

Soft and shapely, Sabrina Whitcomb possessed a body that would give a man ease and comfort. And despite every indication of perfidy—on the part of her brother, at the least—Gideon wanted, absurdly, to be that man and explore every gentle curve and rising crest.

Lust at first sight.

Suddenly dry of throat, Gideon drank the ale she placed before him.

He had hoped for passable looks in his bride, but he found this woman downright ravishing. By virtue of her, ah, assets, he expected she would be a sweet and succulent bed partner.

But how came she to him with child? Or by whom? he should ask. And why had not Hawksworth prepared him for any of it?

Truth to tell, time had been running out for his friend, if Hawksworth could still be termed friend, after withholding certain weighty information, though Gideon supposed one did not quite view one’s sister as other men did.

At least he could stop worrying about having to work up the necessary enthusiasm to bed a homely virgin, Gideon thought, consoling himself. There must be something to be said for experience in a wife, but what that might be, he could not precisely recall as having any import at this juncture. Given his bride’s impending motherhood, however, he felt annoyed and duped. “I assume you were widowed something less than nine months ago?”

She colored, but raised her chin. “How do you know I am not married still?”

Explaining his knowledge would reveal his identity, which seemed precipitate and imprudent, of a sudden. Perhaps he should wait a bit, at least until he regained his bearings and got a better grasp on the situation.

God’s teeth, he wished honor were not at stake here, much as he wanted the delightful but surprising package before him, in the strictly carnal sense, of course.

Since hunger for food also gnawed at him, Gideon cut a piece of cheese as he considered his answer. “Widow’s weeds,” he said, after chewing thoughtfully, indicating her black bombazine gown. “If I do not mistake the matter.”

Sabrina rolled a mound of dough from a tawny clay bowl and nodded. “You do not. I am eight months a widow. Perceptive of you.”

Not perceptive enough, by damn.

So much for his wedding night. Gideon tore a piece of warm bread from the loaf.

Good God, he was in danger of becoming a husband and father in one sweep. Not that children, in themselves, frightened him, but the notion of becoming immediately and directly responsible for one, certainly did.

No wonder her brother had begged, as he lay dying, for Gideon to wed and protect her. How well he remembered that plea for her protection. But what Gideon’s erstwhile friend had not said was that, without his protection, Sabrina Whitcomb might be forced to a life on the streets.

Even without that knowledge, with the haze of smoke and the stench of death all about them, and Grandmama’s letter in his pocket, Gideon had grasped Hawksworth’s plea like a ticket to life.

Fulfilling his friend’s dying wish became a call to honor, while caring for his sister would give Gideon purpose in a, heretofore, meaningless existence. Having suffered enough ennui and regret, Gideon had, in that moment stared his own mortality in its bony eye sockets and yearned of a sudden for an heir, someone to carry on his name. A small someone, who might fill the emptiness and accept him without condition.

He had simply not expected the tiny package to arrive quite so soon.

Since the begetting of heirs fell into line with his favorite and most accomplished sport—he had practiced diligently for years—the offer of a fresh and virginal bride upon whom to get his heir had seemed a gift from above, though hell—and Bonaparte—had needed to be faced first.

Hawksworth had breathed a great sigh with Gideon’s final promise and all but expired in his arms. Then Gideon was forced to rejoin his regiment in the thick of battle.

By the time he returned, his friend’s body had been taken away.

Weeks after Napoleon had been routed, Gideon had finally been able to send letters offering Sabrina Whitcomb his hand and arranging to have her brought to Stanthorpe Place. After weeks aboard the Bellerophon in Torbay Harbor, guarding the conquered Frenchman, he had then sailed on the Northumberland to St. Helena to stand guard there till his tour of duty ended.

Not until Dover’s Cliffs finally came into sight did Gideon have the time and freedom to worry in earnest about the pitfalls in his promise, namely, the bride, herself.

He had reasoned then that a poor and homely spinster should be particularly grateful for his name and protection, and therefore amenable and easy to the bit. But the bemused goddess watching him could, in no way, even in her interesting condition, be compared to any creature he might master. Nor, he suspected, would she ever be easy—to the bit or anything else. And yet, something about her answered a need in him, a longing he could not even name.

Gideon scoffed inwardly at his idiocy.

While Grandmama had dubbed the alliance romantic, and destined, he had called it daft and wondered if he was not sickening from something. Not that he had any choice in the matter. Honor dictated that he not deny the friend whose blood thinned the mud beneath them. No more than he could deny this remarkable woman who called forth in him a bizarre and unexplained need to care for and protect.

Moreover, it was entirely possible that, despite her temporary indisposition, Sabrina Whitcomb, with her gull-winged brows and sable-thick hair, might actually make him an acceptable wife.

And who was he trying to fool? He was eager for her. He had heard it said that expectant women glowed with vitality, but he had never witnessed the like.

Until today.

What he should do, Gideon thought with derision, was take himself off to Bedlam to get fitted for a straightjacket. Never mind that this challenging mix of seductress and virgin, child and woman, could be said to fulfill every male fantasy. Never mind that his long-time mistress, svelte and skilled, awaited his arrival even now.

“Are you unwell?” his intended asked, her brows knit with sincere concern.

“Unquestionably,” Gideon replied in bad humor. “Positively dotty. I must say, you do not seem particularly overcome with grief at your husband’s passing.”

Sabrina’s eyes darkened to liquid amethyst and Gideon regretfully expected her to shrink before him. Instead a tigress emerged, all bright fire and unsheathed claws. “I suppose your bad manners are understandable,” she snapped, “begging at the back doors of your betters, as you are, but you might at least pretend a degree of polite gratitude.”

Claws that could draw blood, he must remember. Gideon suppressed an unnatural and frightening urge to break into a smile. And did he resemble a derelict so much that she did not realize who he must be?

His bride raised her stubborn chin a fraction. “For your information, not that you merit any, my husband was...less than a good man, but I do grieve for a dear friend.

Gideon heard the truth of it in her voice, read sincerity in her eyes, and was shamed. “Please,” he said. “Accept my apology. You have had a bad time of it and did not deserve a show of temper. I do thank you for the meal.” He began to eat in earnest. “Tell me about your friend.”

The tigress nodded, claws instantly sheathed, seeming surprised at his humble reaction to her scold. “The friend for whom I mourn was the Duke of Hawksworth,” she said, love and sadness etching her features. “And I do not know how I shall go on without him.”

Friend? Something dark, possessive, and ponderous rose up in Gideon. The liar had called her, sister. Why would a man lie about his relationship with a woman, unless—

Good God, had Hawksworth been looking to give his bastard a name?

No, and again, no.

It was true that he, Hawksworth, and several others, had been friends for no more than a matter of months, their alliance forged by circumstance, camaraderie, and shared patriotism. The rogues’ whimsical club formed in a tent, in time of war, so life-stories had been dispensed with. So Gideon knew little of Hawksworth’s family, less of his taste in women.

Nevertheless, his friend had been, without doubt, a man of honor. That and some strong but nameless instinct about the woman before him, made Gideon believe he must be wrong. And yet....

Less than twenty-four hours remained until his wedding and would have to suffice as time enough to learn what he must. If his groundless suspicions proved true and he found the prospect of marriage to this woman insupportable, he would call off the wedding and she would never know Stanthorpe had been here.

For now, however, since he obviously appeared as much a derelict as he felt, he had best get himself upstairs to wash. Blast and damnation, how the devil would he manage that without revealing his name?

Feeling caged of a sudden, Gideon rose to stare out the window, as if an answer could be found upon the sudden summer gale.

“Sir, I do not know your name.”

Gideon turned, read her bewilderment, and resigned himself to revealing his identity. “You may call me Gideon.”

When she made no sign of recognition, he began to hope for a reprieve. He bowed. “Gideon St. Goddard, at your service.”

“Mr. St. Goddard.” She curtseyed, inasmuch as she could, and bestowed upon him a genuine smile of delight. When the deepest dimples that ever felled man tugged at his cold rogue’s heart, Gideon feared there would be no reprieve for him. None.

“Ah Mrs. Chalmer,” Sabrina said as they turned as one to the woman who had just entered the kitchen. “Mr. St. Goddard, here, will be staying with us for a while. Please have your husband put him in with the others.”

The others?

Mrs. Chalmer’s brows arched. But when Gideon shook his head, imperceptibly, her way, his wizened old cook set her mouth, narrowed her eyes, and led him wordlessly up the stairs.

* * *

Sabrina Whitcomb had never felt more gauche or nonplussed in her four and twenty years of life. Never had she come face to face with such a vital and disarming specimen of manhood.

True, his dark shadow of a beard, his intense emerald eyes, gave a first stark impression. True, he regarded her like a hawk sighting prey.

Yes, that thick hair flowing away from his face, like waves in a midnight wind, had only served to enhance the image, and he had frightened her.

But despite all that, she had also been fascinated by his every unexpected facet. His demeanor had seemed at differing moments to shift from beggar to baron; scamp to sorcerer; champion to charmer.

Here was a man who might protect her from all comers, even from the likes of the vile creature, she was afraid still searched for her. Not that Homer Lowick would ever find her in as safe and unlikely a location as Stanthorpe Place, a blessing for which she had Hawksworth to thank.

But Gideon St. Goddard was another matter entirely. Good Lord, that such a bold, capable one should arrive at her door the day before her wedding to another. Which made no account, because the man was penniless, she must remember, a situation she could no longer tolerate, for herself or her children.

Hawksworth had kept his promise with his last breath. For that reason, first, if not for her vow to herself, she must remain true to Stanthorpe. Forget that his assessing regard turned her to pudding, that his verdant eyes made him appear, almost, to smile, even when he did not. Never mind a mouth shaped to reveal an inborn cheerfulness that inevitably tugged at her own smile.

And when St. Goddard had finally bestowed his first true smile upon her, full and deadly, before following Mrs. Chalmer up the stairs, the sculpted grooves in his cheeks had deepened, revealing a rogue undeniable, handsome as sin and rife with promise.

Well, Sabrina thought, kneading her dough to India Rubber, palpitations over a charming rogue did not belong in the breast of a woman engaged to another. Especially not one past the blush of youth and due to give birth at any moment.

The doddering old Duke of Stanthorpe would do very well for her, thank you very much. With his money, he would be as able to protect her as well as any broad-shouldered pauper.

Tonight, after dinner, tomorrow at the latest, she would tell the handsome St. Goddard that he must leave Stanthorpe Place at once.

She had no room in her life for a seductive lady-killer.

More’s the pity.

 

 

 

about Annette

home fan quotes

top

booklist

excerpts

gotta have a copy

The Stories

Hit Counter

 

   

© Annette Lague Blair, Last website updates: 01/25/2014 04:17 PM