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THE RAKEHELL'S REFORM
by Elisabeth Fairchild
ISBN # 0-451-19122-6
What the critics say:
4 1/2 STARS -- "The highly gifted Elisabeth Fairchild moves from triumph to triumph as she brings us yet another superbly original love story for our reading pleasure... Ms. Fairchild writes with a wonderfully rich texture, delving deeply into a uniquely bonded pair of lovers you'll never forget. Another great chapter in the Ramsay saga."
- Melinda Helfer, ROMANTIC TIMES
"Highly Recommended" One of Lucinda's Paperback Picks- Manderley
"If a regency romance is a seduction with words... then Elisabeth Fairchild is a seductress par excelance! One can easily become inebriated by the sheer exuberance of her wordplay, let alone the clever plots and endearing characters of her creation. "
- Kristen Ballard, ROMANCE FOREVER MAGAZINE
"Fairchild has penned another winner, full of heartthrobbing emotion. Her descriptions of Jack's music are glorious- another example of a heartfelt look at the creative, artistic side of life. Highly recommended. "
- Kimberly Borrowdale, UNDER THE COVERS
FINALIST for: PHOENIX GOLDEN QUILL READERS' CHOICE AWARD OF EXCELLENCE
Down the snow white marble stairs at Brooks's he headed. It was fitting that he went down. When one has single-handedly lost almost every penny to one's family name, the direction one heads should be down.
Jack Ramsay paused on the third step to look back. The song of Lester Fletcher's triumph followed him. The old man was laughing--laughter that set him to coughing--great, gut-wrenching coughs that hurt just in listening to them. Fletcher had spent most of the evening coughing and winning: choking coughs in his drink, wheezing great cloud-coughs of smoke from his infernal cigars, barking uncontrolled, unstifleable coughs behind the shield of his cards, and as if an angel sat upon his shoulder comforting him, with every cough he won. The fat, asthmatic blow-hard now hacked his phlegm over all that had been left of the Ramsay family's fortune, his handkerchiefs a pile of promissory notes signed by Jack Ramsay's hand, in his brother Charles's name.
Jack turned his back on the evening and all that had gone wrong to the tune of those coughs. The stairs stretched before him, dizzying in their whiteness. The wind had been knocked out of him. Did he take a step unassisted, he would go cartwheeling, ass over teakettle, down the unforgiving length of marble.
Grabbing the cold, cast iron balustrade he steadied himself. Strange, as many times as he had taken these stairs he had never noticed the curling vinelike S pattern in the black balusters. What did those esses stand for? Stupid? Simple? Sapskull? Or was it no more than support for the shorn shagwits who did not know when to quit betting before their pockets were completely emptied? He had never required the use of the bannister before. Today he did not think he could make it to the bottom of the stairs without the support. His legs felt weak. Terror did that to a man, and he was completely terrified.
Lord help him, how could he have lost, and gone on losing, until there was nothing left to wager? Nothing!
Two men were coming up the stairs. He headed down. The one in the lead, young and dapper, seemed in a great hurry to reach the Subscription room. He passed Jack with such energy that Jack felt as if some part of him, some indiscernible bit of his essence was swept up the stairs after the man. Slow down--he was tempted to call after the fool. Time enough to lose everything. No need to hurry.
The second, less hearty man, who came puffing in his wake, was Lord Ware, Lester's crony. Rushing up to make sure the coughing spell had not killed Lester, no doubt.
Jack held tongue until they came together on the landing, but then he could not resist remarking bitterly. "A pity your friend will not live to enjoy the fortune he has won tonight."
Ware passed him without dignifying his insult with a reply. He offered no evidence of having heard the taunt at all save a withering look of utter contempt, a look Jack had long since grown accustomed to witnessing. You are a wastrel, the look said, unworthy of either my time or the breath it would take to offer a reply.
There were two occupations in which Jack excelled--two occupations in which he gave lie to such looks. One was when he gambled, for until tonight he had considered himself a dab hand at games of chance, the second being his skill with musical instruments.
Now he had not even the comfort of believing himself a good gambler. He was a wastrel, unworthy of the love of his family, unworthy of the trust his elder brother, Charles had bestowed upon him. He had betrayed that trust, betrayed it completely. Nothing left but to put a bullet in his brain and his disgrace was complete.
To the bottom of the stairs he made it without sinking to his knees--almost to the door out of the club without another encounter, but Hugh Stuart came in as he was donning his coat.
"Leaving, are you, Jack?" He sounded disappointed. "I had hoped you and I might play a hand or two. It is one hundred and fifty pounds I am determined to win back, don't you know."
"Tapped out." Jack did his best to sound nonchalant. Every word he uttered, every move he made this evening would be gossip fodder tomorrow, when all of London would know of Lester Fletcher's run of good fortune against his bad. Half a dozen of the club's patron's hovered nearby, curious witnesses of his reaction to tonight's overwhelming losses.
"Where are you off to, then? Not the mushroom's ball I'll wager." Hugh made the remark innocently, cheerfully. There was no innocence or cheer left in Jack. Hugh sounded to him, the complete fool. He responded, without thinking, out of habit, as he always did when the question of a bet was raised. "How much would you risk?"
And yet, there was a difference. He had risked all, lost all! Everything gone in the turn of a card. There was only a single worthless Welsh penny left upon his person, the only coin he valued too much to risk. The enormity of his losses was numbing.
Oblivious to his concerns, Hugh promised blithely, "I'll lay you a monkey you would never set foot in Avery Preston's house, much less waste an entire evening twiddling your thumbs at his daughter's coming out ball."
Distracted, Jack heard no more than the words lay you a monkey, and the last word, ball. Nothing else penetrated the fog of his despair. "A ball?" he repeated stupidly, sliding the one coin still in his possession from the little pocket in his waistcoat where he never failed to carry it. Negligently he tossed it into the air, palmed it, tossed it high again. "Is there a cello to be had there?"
Hugh laughed. "A cello? I've no idea. I would suppose so. Would you play cello at the mushroom ball?"
Jack nodded. "Yes. Crowns I will play cello at this mushroom ball, castles I go home and shoot myself."
"Crowns it must be then," Hugh said affably.
Careful not to fumble the toss, Jack launched the coin, caught it, slapped it against the back of his hand, and peered at the outcome.
"Damn!" he swore.
Hugh frowned. "Castles is it?"
"No, blast it all, crowns. Where is this ruddy ball being held?"
Hugh laughed, slapped him on the back and called jovially to anyone within shouting distance. "Splendid! Come on, you lot. Do you hear? Jack means to play cello at the mushroom ball!"
The ices were melting, raspberry and lemon, a consequence of her father had insisted there was nothing better for cooling overheated dancers. A tower of them graced the table, mouth-wateringly arranged around a sculpted block of ice, also melting. Selina Preston stood at the window that looked out over the street rather than watch the pink and yellow puddles expand in the expensive crystal bowls Father had purchased for this very purpose. She felt too much kinship with the ruined ices. Dressed to the nines as she was, in the shimmering richness of her father's own intricate jacquard silk, her sleeves and bodice dripping scalloped lace, she felt overly ornamental for the echoing emptiness of a ballroom more populated by musicians and servants than by guests.
Focus shifting, in her uneven reflection on the windowpane, she, like the ices, melted. Not that there was anything wrong with her appearance. To the contrary, she was tonight as near to perfection as could be rendered at the hands of a fashionable Parisian modiste, and the most popular hairdresser in London. All of this primping done with but one goal of her father's fashioning--to win her a husband--a husband of noble birth.
Nobility of name did not matter to Selina as much as a nobility of mind and manner. She had confided as much to her mother on leaving for London. Her mother, of course, had nothing to say with regard to the matter, but Mrs. Preston had been very vocal.
"You have been far too well indulged, Selina," she fussed. "I tried to warn Avery. He would not hear it. Too much freedom to participate in business and too much schooling in subjects uncommon to the typical female's education has not brought your daughter happiness I told him. She has travelled the world, and in consequence, comes home dissatisfied with every eligible bachelor in the county!'"
"Would you be happy to see me shackled to a gentleman of inferior intelligence, provincial thinking, unschooled manners and empty mind?" Selina had asked.
"Only listen to yourself," Mrs. Preston had thrown up her hands in defeat. "And now to London, where there is no telling what sort of people you may meet. Perhaps, as my husband hopes, a titled gentleman will be pleased with you, if not your parents. He will not want to live in Cheshire. And so, your father and I will lose you to his own scheming which began, I am told, even with your birth, in his choosing to name you."
The story was as old as Selina. Her mother had wanted to name her Marianne. Her father had insisted his daughter should not be dubbed anything so ordinary.
"A pompous name and presumptuous," her mother had complained. "The girl will think too much of herself."
"Salt of the earth," her father had argued. And so Selina meant, in Latin. He had often reminded her, that she might not, as her mother and Mrs. Preston feared, think too much of herself.
There was a grim truth to Mrs. Preston's complaints. Selina, salt of the earth, was no more suited to country turnips who had seen nothing of the world than to the all-too-worldly, well-educated and well-traveled Tulips of London. Peers of the realm negotiated marriage with care and forethought, exposing themselves and their hearts to none but the chosen few who revolved in the same circles as themselves, circles whose boundaries she could not leap without more to offer than money and an education. The women these gentlemen sought possessed connections; of bloodline, history, common acquaintances, an equity of power, pounds and property. She was hopelessly outmatched. The only titled young men who would look twice at her, the wealthy daughter of a tradesman from Chester, were the sort who gathered here tonight--desperate men, fortune hunters. They would take her for her wealth, for money alone, not for the richness of her imagination nor the resources of her excellent mind. Certainly not because they loved her. She fit no more comfortably their world than she fit her own of late.
She could be happy, as her mother had been, as Mrs. Preston was, with a good man, a kind man, a man who would love her for herself, not her background, education or the size of her pocketbook. But Selina believed in obedience to her father. She had agreed to this ball as readily as she had applied herself to study with the best tutor to be had in Cheshire county, as obediently as she had gone away to the finest French boarding school, as agreeably as she had spent eight months travelling Europe in the well-paid company of Mrs. LaRue, who saw to it she was impeccably fitted with the very finery she wore this evening.
Inside and out, all of her life, she had been coaxed, teased, molded and shaped. Miserable as she was, she could have greeted her guests, had there been any, in flawless French, Italian, German or Dutch, but there were no guests. There were no carriages lining the street below, letting down a steady stream of passengers.
No one had come, just as she had warned her father. No one of consequence, no one who mattered, no matter how gilded the invitations nor how fine the wine. The sounds of the orchestra echoed hollowly in virtually empty rooms. The food on the sideboards, beautifully prepared and presented, grew stale.
He did not want to listen, would not see truth until it dripped itself into his consciousness by way of a tower of uneaten ices. Poor father! This was not at all what he had intended for this evening. He wanted the world for his only daughter. He was ready to spend every penny he had to buy it for her. The approval and acceptance of the ton, however, was not for sale. He had not wanted to believe her when she had informed him that this evening had been dubbed the mushroom ball.
"Call me a mushroom, do they? Why?"
She was surprised he did not know, reminded afresh that a great deal that was commonplace to her, due to her schooling, was an utter mystery to her father. "For your suddenly risen fortune," she explained.
"Do they think a lifetime of hard work and canny decisions sudden?"
"Unfortunately, and unfairly, yes. Your fortune, father, is unrooted. We have no laudable family tree, no crest, no shield, no title--not a single ancestor to refer to in DeBrett's peerage."
His face had reddened in his outrage. "You come from honest, sturdy yeoman stock."
She gentled him with a hand on his arm. "I know. And well pleased I am to boast not a single wastrel or scoundrel among them, unless, of course, Allan means to set a new standard with his wilder habits."
"No harm in Allan. He but cuts his teeth on life."
"As do I this evening," she claimed, unwilling to argue about Allan. "You must not be sorry, father. You planned a beautiful evening, a perfect evening, a bit of magic."
"Magic gone awry," he muttered, forcing a rueful smile.
"Care for another raspberry ice?"
She shook her head, stared blankly out of the window and prayed for a miracle.
Beneath her, movement in the fog-bound street. A dark carriage pulled by dark horses halted at the curb. Two shadowy figures got out. The first, awaiting the second, seemed to sense her staring. He looked up, his face pale and troubled beneath a tall, dark hat. She felt foolish to be caught standing in the window, waiting for miracles. There was no doubt he saw her. He stared, as if he had never seen a woman standing in a window before. She made a move to go. He tipped his hat. In so doing, he stopped her retreat, for in the light from the carriage lamps his hair glinted like flame, a miracle of bright color in an otherwise grey landscape.
"Come, my dear." Her father took up her arm. "You must dance."