London, April 25, 1822
“Is Lord Chillingsworth pleased that you will be able to join him in London this season?”
Regan blinked, distracted by the innocent question. All she wanted to do was rend the paper in her hand into dozens of illegible pieces and scream. Instead, she carefully folded Frost’s letter and smiled demurely at her friends’ expectant expressions.
“Of course.” Her fingers tapped the paper lightly. “While it has only been four months since I last saw Frost, I have not had the pleasure of visiting London in almost five years.”
And if Frost has his way, another five years will pass before he grants me his consent.
“Our first social season in Town!” Nina sighed.
Miss Tyne was nineteen and possessed an overly optimistic view on life. The daughter of a baron, Nina was expected to make a good match for her family. It was a laudable goal, and the young woman was amendable to her family’s wishes. Regan was confident that Nina would soon have a dozen suitors vying for her affections.
Perhaps some of Nina’s optimism had rubbed off on Regan while they were in school, after all.
“Well, I say it is high time Lord Chillingsworth does his duty by you, and gives you a proper season, Regan. I will have you know that Mama agrees as well.”
She did not have the heart to remind Thea that her mother was the person responsible for Regan’s banishment from London in the first place. Frost would have never thought to send her away to school if it had not been for Lady Karmack’s meddling. He had been too busy pursuing his own amusements to be bothered with giving his sister the education and polish befitting an earl’s daughter.
Lady Karmack, on the other hand, had taken one look at Regan and feared that under the care of her notorious brother, she was destined to become a famous courtesan or, worse, the wife of one of the Lords of Vice. As a distant cousin, the older woman felt it was her Christian duty to remove Regan from her brother’s ghastly influence.
It still hurt that Frost had not fought harder to keep her.
In the beginning, Regan had not appreciated Lady Karmack’s keen interest in her welfare. She had been disrespectful, outrageous, and oftentimes deliberately obtuse when it came to her lessons. The first year away from Frost and the men she considered her family had been the worst, and Regan had not been shy about displaying her anger toward the people who sincerely believed that they were saving her from a life of depravity. It was at Miss Swann’s Academy for Young Ladies that she gradually became friends with Thea and Nina.
Instead of looking down their noses at Regan’s outlandish behavior as many of the other girls had, the two young women had been in awe. No one dared to challenge Miss Swann or speak her mind, yet Regan often did both. The trio had banded together by the end of their first year, and had been nearly inseparable. When Regan had not been sequestered at school, she often spent her summers visiting her friends. If Frost was in residence at the family’s country seat, she joined him. However, their weeks together were usually strained, and, in hindsight, Regan acknowledged that she was often to blame.
In those early years of what she had come to view as her banishment, she had written her brother dozens of letters, begging him to relent and come for her. She missed her old life. She missed Nox and the Lords of Vice. She had often wondered if Dare might kiss her again if she returned to London.
Frost never gave her a chance to satisfy her curiosity.
He always denied her requests. Not one for sentimentality, the only time her brother wrote to her was to tell her that she could not return to London until Miss Swann had transformed the hoyden into a lady. His casual rejections had taken their toll on their relationship, and Regan could not quite forgive Frost for sending her away.
However, she was willing to let bygones be bygones if her brother was willing to be reasonable.
She intended to spend the entire season in London with or without his blessing.
With Lady Karmack on her side this time, Frost was going to find it difficult to dismiss her polite request.
“Will you be remaining at our house or will you join Frost at his town house?” Thea asked.
“My brother undoubtedly will want me to reside with him,” Regan brazenly lied. “However, it might be prudent to remain here until I have had a chance to speak to him.”
Nina shut the book that she had been reading and placed it on her lap. “Good heavens!”
Regan tried to appear innocent. “I beg your pardon?”
Her friend rolled her eyes heavenward. “I cannot believe your audacity. Now tell us the truth, is your brother aware that you are in Town?”
Thea gasped. “But you told Mama—”
Regan gave her friends an exasperated look. “Be sensible. Our recent travels have added to the delays in my correspondence with my brother. While Frost is looking forward to seeing me”—she crossed her fingers behind her back and prayed that her words were true—“he most likely has not received my last letter.”
There was no reason to tell Thea and Nina that Frost was expecting to see her in August when he returned to the family’s country estate.
Her arrogant brother had not mentioned London at all.
Thea thought Regan’s explanation was sound. “Should we send a messenger to his town house?”
Unconvinced, Nina glanced at Thea and then Regan. She nodded, silently agreeing to whatever plan Regan had concocted. “Or that club he frequents. Oh, what is it called?”
“Nox,” Regan absently replied, rising from her chair. With Frost’s letter in her hand, she gracefully strolled over to the small fireplace. “I do not believe that will be necessary, ladies. Some messages are best delivered in person.”
Regan bent down and dropped Frost’s letter onto the burning coal embers. The folded paper quickly caught fire, the flames greedily destroying the letter.
Her banishment was finally over.
Dare smoothed his hair back before he pulled the crimson drapery aside and entered the private theater box that Hunter had rented for the season. His late arrival would likely provoke a few comments from his friends.
Frost did not disappoint him.
With his chair positioned at an angle to accommodate his long legs, the earl grinned up at him. “Why, a good evening to you, Lord Hugh!”
Dare stepped over his friend’s legs and nodded to Hunter and Saint, who had yet to take their seats. “Keep your nasty wit to yourself, Frost. I know that I am late. It could not be helped.”
Frost pivoted, pulling his legs in as he faced Dare. “How kind of you to join us this evening. I must confess when I espied Lady Pashley sitting alone in her box, I feared that your honorable nature might rear its ugly head and put an irreparable blight on our promising evening.”
“If true, Dare’s honor might not be the only head rising this evening,” Saint muttered to Hunter as he nudged the duke.
Dare acknowledged his friend’s ribald comment with a low chuckle. He peered out into the sea of private boxes in search of his brother’s marchioness. He spotted her one tier down. Another couple had joined Allegra, and with luck they would remain at her side for the evening.
“Unlike you, Frost, manners and duty may dictate me to stop by Lady Pashley’s private box to pay my respects. Nevertheless, I have no inclination to tarry.”
Frost snorted, making his disbelief apparent.
“While you may find this difficult to believe, another lady has engaged my attentions this evening.” Dare was in too good a mood to be annoyed with Frost. “Mrs. Randall has invited me to call on her after Lord and Lady Quinton’s ball.”
Frost’s eyebrows slid upward as he nodded with begrudging approval. Hunter and Saint offered their congratulations. The lovely twenty-eight-year-old widow had come out of mourning last season. She had rejected all suitors and, as far as anyone knew, all potential lovers. The young widow had even been impervious to Frost’s charms.
“I assume you expect us to join you at Lord and Lady Quinton’s ball?” Frost said, casting a sly glance in Lady Pashley’s direction.
Dare braced his palm against the back of his friend’s chair and stared directly into Frost’s turquoise-blue eyes. “Mrs. Randall never mentioned me joining her at the ball. Nor would she approve of me bringing the likes of you along to her town house.”
“Widows are daring creatures. She might be agreeable with the proper enticement,” Frost said, bringing his gloved hand up to the apex of his trousers to make his vulgar point.
All four men laughed, earning them several curious looks from the nearby boxes. Dare sat down beside Frost. He was looking for another subject to distract his friend when Saint came to the rescue.
“Has anyone heard from Reign or Sin this evening?”
Hunter slid into the seat in front of Dare. “Sin will join us later. His wife decided to sit with her mother and sisters this evening.”
A noncommittal noise rumbled in Frost’s throat. He did not exactly approve of Lady Sinclair, and the lady did not hide the fact that she was merely tolerant of Frost for her husband’s sake.
Hunter gave their friend a bemused glance. “Show some respect, Frost. Lady Sinclair is expected to deliver the Sinclair heir sometime in September. Sin is just protective of his lady.”
“And Reign?” Dare prompted.
“Worse than Sin, now that he is a father.” Saint crossed his arms across his chest and braced his stance by bending his left knee. “He left London five days ago to collect his wife and infant daughter. Reign did not want them traveling alone.”
Dare could not blame Reign. He had never seen a gentleman so besotted. Last season, when Reign had encountered Lady Sophia Northam at a ball, he had fallen hard for the demure blonde. Reign had the lady wedded, bedded, and with child before the season had ended.
“Another good man . . . ,” Frost mumbled, the rest of his sentence unintelligible, but his meaning was clear to his friends.
Frost enjoyed ladies as well as any other gent. He just did not view them as anything permanent in a man’s life. As far as the earl was concerned, marriage had ruined Sin and Reign.
To some degree, Dare silently agreed with Frost. His older brother’s marriage to Allegra was a miserable union, and Reign’s first marriage to Miss Roberts had been an unmitigated disaster. Still, both Reign and Sin seemed happy in their recent marriages. Dare did not begrudge his friends their newfound bliss.
While Saint regaled them with Vane’s latest mischief, Dare idly observed the lords and ladies from private box to private box. He immediately spotted Lady Sinclair. Seated beside Lady Harper, the marchioness was engrossed in a discussion with one of her sisters. Sin was nowhere in sight.
Dare moved on to another private box, recognizing some of the patrons as he let his gaze continue to wander. It meant nothing if his attention lingered on Allegra. After all, she was a beautiful woman. If his heart ached, it was his own damn business. Before his older brother had stolen her from him, Allegra had been his.
Frost often teased him about Allegra, but his friend did not understand Dare’s inner conflict. While a part of him would always love the lady, he also hated her. His familial obligations kept him tethered, and he seemed doomed to never be quite free from her.
And his brother enjoyed Dare’s torment.
Before he could dwell further on his dark thoughts, a glint of amber caught Dare’s eye, distracting him from Allegra’s private box. One tier up and two boxes to the right, a dark-haired lady in an amber evening dress presented him her elegant profile. Captivated, he watched as the silken fabric of her dress gleamed like the sun while the candlelight from the chandeliers played across the angles of her puffed sleeves and skirt. Her dark tresses had been pulled high, and only a few curls near her hairline had escaped. The lady’s pale creamy complexion was untouched by the sun, yet even in the dim interior of the theater, her skin glowed with health and vitality.
Dare watched as she extended her gloved hand to a gentleman who had slipped into their private box to pay the woman and her female companions his respects. Slightly envious that the gent had discovered the lady in amber before he had, Dare leaned forward as he watched the silent courtship play out for his eyes. The young woman smiled and gestured as she formally introduced her friends. The gentleman bowed, his eyes remaining on his amber prize.
The gentleman was older and possessed a weak chin. Possibly two. A lady of wealth and beauty could do better. The three gentlemen entering the crowded box must have thought the same thing.
Dare stood when the young woman brought her hand to her heart, and then practically threw herself into the arms of one of her would-be suitors. His gaze narrowed as recognition flooded his envious heart.
“What the devil--is that Vane?” Dare said his voice infused with such fury that Frost, Hunter, and Saint ceased speaking and stared at him with varying degrees of amazement.
He could not blame them for their curiosity. Dare did not understand his reaction himself. A small part of him was still tempted to leap from box to box until he reached Vane so he could have the pleasure of tossing the rogue headfirst into the pit.
What spared him was that the woman in amber released Vane and stepped back. At Vane’s urging, she looked across the interior of the theater. Dare inhaled sharply as his hungry gaze drank in her beauty. Familiarity tickled his senses, but it was elusive. Unexpectedly their gazes locked, and the dark-haired beauty seemed almost as startled as he was by the impact.
Recognition popped in his head like miniature fireworks.
The last time Dare had seen her endearing face, it had been sullied by soot and grime.
“Gents!” Sin said, bursting through the closed curtains at the back of their private box. He was grinning from ear to ear. “Why did no one tell me that our little Regan has come home?”
Excerpt from AFTER DARK WITH A SCOUNDREL. Copyright © February 2011, Alexandra Hawkins. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any format without written permission.