A Rake Like You
by Becky Michaels
About to turn thirty, Charles Finch finally realizes his luck has run out. Heâ€™s twenty thousand pounds in debt, his entire family hates him, and the powerful Duke of Rutley is watching his every move. So Charles sets out to do what any handsome but impoverished earl would: find a young lady with an impressive dowry to marry him and replenish his coffers.
Louisa Strickland much prefers managing the successful estate her father left her to the company of society. But now that her younger sister has come of age, Louisa finds herself in Mayfair, forced to protect her family from desperate fortune hunters like her neighbor, Charles Finch. And when Charles sets his sights on Louisaâ€™s sister, Louisa will do anything to avert his attention elsewhere.
As Charles and Louisa find themselves rekindling an old friendship that once went up in flames, Charles begins to wonder if there could be something more between them. He only needs to prove heâ€™s not the man he once was. But unfortunately for Charles, it will take much more than passionate kisses and giving up brandy to convince independent Louisa to marry a rake like him.
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Louisa walked away from Philip Hayward feeling irritated and embarrassed, muttering a multitude of oaths against men under her breath. She had never received such individual attention from someone so handsome before, but then to find out he was married? From Charles Finch, of all people? She cursed her rotten luck. Charles was surely gloating inwardly at that very moment.
She discreetly checked over her shoulder to see if the earl was still following them. He was. Quietly huffing, Louisa stopped walking and turned to her sister. “Perhaps you ought to go find your mother. She will be wondering how your dance with Lord Bolton went.”
Flora frowned. “But what about Lady Rosamund? You said she might know something about Viscount Fitzgerald.”
By then, Charles had caught up to them, slowing as the two girls spoke furtively by one of the columns at the edge of the ballroom. Charles flashed a pleasant smile, but Louisa eyed him suspiciously before turning back to her sister, whispering, “I will report back what I learn in the carriage later this evening. Until then, you should allow your mother to show you off to other suitors.” Despite whispering, Louisa wasn’t really trying to be discreet. She shot a pointed look at Charles, who frowned. “You mustn’t put all of your eggs in one basket, after all.”
Flora let out an unladylike sound, but Louisa silenced her with a warning look. Even if Louisa didn’t want Charles marrying her sister, Flora still must act like a lady around him. Men talked to other men, after all—especially men like Charles. Flora turned to him, offering a quick curtsey in his direction. “Thank you for the dance, Lord Bolton.”
He bowed, then watched her go. When Flora was out of earshot, Louisa turned to him, finally free to speak what she was feeling. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
Charles looked at her, his brow furrowed as if he didn’t quite understand, though Louisa suspected he did. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Must you be so thick skulled?” Louisa asked. When Charles still did not give any sign of understanding, she felt her hands starting to curl into tiny fists at her side. “You asked him about his wife to embarrass me!”
His face fell. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he argued. Louisa shot him an unconvinced look. “I only brought it up because I doubted he told you himself. What were you thinking dancing with a man like that? Have you any care for your reputation? You are lucky I was there to rescue you.”
Louisa wasn’t sure what Charles meant. Hayward seemed no different from anyone else she might meet in a London ballroom: overly conceited and self-important. “And what sort of man is Mr. Hayward? I have never heard of him.”
“He only owns the most notorious gaming hell in all of London,” Charles said, his voice low. “I would not advise dancing with him again.”
Louisa made a tiny sound of frustration, looking away. This was why she hated society. If a handsome gentleman asked one to dance, one could not say no for fear of being rude. But handsome gentlemen did not exactly come with warnings that they were married and owned a notorious gaming hell.
Oh, why must society dealings be so complicated?
Louisa sighed, finally meeting Charles’s inquisitive gaze. “Who do you advise I dance with, then? Is anyone acceptable to you? Or is a spinster having a spot of fun with someone truly that shocking?”
“You could dance with me,” Charles said with a shrug.
She laughed. “I highly doubt that would be enjoyable for either one of us.”
Charles stared at her for a long moment, and then he leaned in to say something in her ear. Right away, Louisa could tell he smelled different. Gone was the odor of expensive brandy, since replaced with a mixture of fresh laundry and unoffensive cologne. She found herself so surprised by it she could hardly move, allowing his warm breath to assault her ear as he spoke.
“I am only looking out for you, Louisa,” Charles said. He pulled away, their eyes meeting. For a brief moment, she softened toward him. The back of her mind told her she would regret it, but she stupidly ignored it. “You are far too innocent to understand what sort of fun Hayward enjoys.”
Her face fell when she realized the back of her mind had been correct. “Innocent? Innocent?” She made a half-hearted attempt to mollify her anger but failed miserably. Her nostrils flared. “What do you know of my innocence? Need I remind you that I once caught you ravishing an opera singer in your aunt’s library? Do you truly think I am so innocent that I do not understand what sort of fun a man truly wants?”
Louisa thought she saw the beginnings of a blush forming on the earl’s cheeks. “I’d hoped you had forgotten about that,” he mumbled.