A Study in Scoundrels
Romancing the Rules, Book 2
Sophia Ruthven is the epitome of proper behavior. On paper at least, as long as that paper isn’t from one of the lady detective stories she secretly pens. She certainly isn’t interested in associating with the dashing Jasper Grey, the wayward heir to the Earl of Stanhope, and one of the stage’s leading men. But when she learns Grey’s younger sister Liddy has gone missing, she can’t deny her desire to solve the mystery…or her attraction to the incorrigible scoundrel.
Responsibility isn’t something Grey is very familiar with. On the boards and in the bedroom, he lives exactly how he wants to, shunning all the trappings of respectability and society. Grey knows he should avoid the bewitching Sophia, but he’s never been able to say no to what he wants. And having Sophia in his arms and his bed is quickly becoming the thing he wants the most.
As Sophia and Grey’s search for Liddy continues across the English countryside, can this scoundrel convince a proper lady that he’s actually perfect for her or will their adventure leave them both heartbroken?
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Read an Excerpt
June 22, 1895
Laughter tickled his ears. Weight bore down on his chest, draped over his hips. A soft weight, pliant under his hands. Heated too. Pleasure in his groin twined with pain in his head as the soft, warm weight moved against him.
He blinked, then again. Colors shimmered and blurred. The light was too dim. The room too smoky. Perfume burned his nose, too spicy and pungent.
What was that sound? A moan. A cry.
A rumbling groan reverberated in his own chest.
“Don’t leave me now,” a woman whispered near his ear. “I need release.”
He flexed his fingers, digging into the warm flesh of smooth feminine legs. Slid his hand up, finding the thicket of curls between the woman’s spread thighs.
She moved against him, her breath quickening as little moans emerged. She clutched at his shoulder, her other hand on his, showing him how to touch her.
He didn’t require much direction. The role of lover was one he knew by heart. Some said he was skilled on stage, but he never doubted his expertise in the bedroom.
His own body had numbed. Whether from drink or the drugging effect of the smoke rising in whorls above his head, he wasn’t certain. But this, how to touch a woman, how to give pleasure. This he knew intuitively. This was where he excelled.
Heaven knew he’d failed at everything else.
But performing on stage was all a matter of illusion, of lying artfully. Sex and falsehood were his twin aptitudes.
If only he could see the woman clearly and scatter the fog in his mind. He twisted his head on the pillow and noticed a half-empty glass of blue-green liquid glowing in the low gaslight.
“What did I drink?”
A trill of laughter. Red lips. The curve of a grin in a pale face. A waterfall of red hair.
He swirled his fingers in the woman’s curls. She stilled and held her breath. He knew he’d found the key. Gently, masterfully, he touched her with all the art he’d learned from countless lovers.
“Oh, Grey.” She twitched against his fingers, dug her nails into his shoulder. “Don’t stop.”
He didn’t. Not until she gusted out a long moan, dipped her head, and sank against him as if her bones had melted.
“Absinthe,” she murmured against his chest. “A bit of laudanum.”
Grey pressed a fist to the throbbing crown of his head and tried to sit up. The lady on his chest stretched like a cat woken from a nap before rising off him and stepping away from the bed.
No, he realized when his vision cleared and he took in the books lining the walls, not a bed. Not his bedroom. He was on a settee in his London townhouse’s library, and he and his lady companion were not alone. Half-clothed bodies reclined around the musky, haze-clouded room. Some sleeping. Others smoking from an enormous bubbling hookah. At least one couple was busy, writhing and moaning in the far corner.
A man stumbled past the open library door, nude from the waist up, his shirt and coat rolled in a crumpled ball in his arms. Returning to the threshold, he let out a burp before offering, “Many happy returns, Grey. Smashing birthday party.”
Grey waved in the man’s direction, though he couldn’t have recalled the gent’s identity to save his life. Now that his eyesight had cleared, he could make out the bell pull near the fireplace. He kicked a man’s leg as he stumbled forward. In his stupor, the partygoer only managed a weak grumble.
Finally reaching the length of fabric to signal the downstairs staff, Grey yanked hard. A seemingly endless ribbon of velvet fabric settled at his feet. Not the bell pull, apparently, but a woman’s dismantled gown.
“I need some bloody coffee!” he shouted, instantly regretting the painful echo in his head. No one seemed sober enough to listen anyway.
“Ask the maid to get some,” a man called from a deep wingback chair with a giggling woman sprawled across its arms. “As soon as I’m finished with her,” the heartless cad added before taking her mouth in a kiss.
“Unless someone gets me coffee, you are all uninvited from my next celebration.” He glanced at the scattered bodies. “And if you work for me, you’re fired.”
“I’ll find you some, sweetheart.” The woman he’d woken to find on his lap approached and ran a hand down his chest. She’d donned a sheer wrapper that covered her body but hid nothing from his gaze. Lifting her other hand, she offered what he guessed were his trousers hooked on the tip of one finger.
“Thank you, darling.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek, still at a complete loss for the woman’s name. Of course, it didn’t stop him from watching her maneuver out of the room, plump backside swaying with every step, as he pulled on his trousers.
Sinking onto the settee, he ran a hand through his hair and surveyed the wreckage. More than bodies littered the room. Books had been pulled from their shelves. The desk had been swiped clear of its lamp, writing implements, and blotter. A Nippon vase a wealthy widow had gifted him lay in pieces on the windowsill.
“My lord, may I have a word?”
Grey gazed around the room, waiting for an aristocratic guest to pop up and answer the man’s request. It had been years since he’d responded to titles or honorifics. Throughout his time in London, he’d done his best to ensure no acquaintances learned of the life he’d left behind.
He had the means to provide lavish entertainment. That was all anyone truly cared to know.
“May I have a word, my lord?” the voice came again. Emotionless. Calm. Hauntingly familiar. A ghost from the past.
Grey turned his head and blinked, pressed two fingers to his blurry eyes. The ghost was corporeal and stood in the doorway as stiff and straight as ever.
“Blessing?” Grey croaked.
“Lord Winship.” The man nodded in the curt, almost insulting way of William Blessing, his father’s long-suffering butler. But the man couldn’t be here in Grey’s sinful corner of fashionable London. Derbyshire was where Blessing belonged. The care and keeping of the Stanhope staff and estate was the old man’s domain. He was far too loyal a servant to stray from the Earl of Stanhope’s side while his master was dying. Unless . . .
“He perseveres, my lord.”
Grey swallowed hard and stood, crossing his arms over his chest. Suddenly, after two days of unfettered revelry, he felt underdressed. “Then why are you here, Blessing?”
“Because I need to speak to you, and he wouldn’t let me come alone.” Another voice from the past. Rebecca, Lady Fennston, stepped around Blessing, her black hair streaked with gray now and partially covered by a hooded cloak. Her eyes ballooned as she took in the wreckage of Grey’s library. Then her cheeks reddened when she noticed Grey’s half-naked state.
“My lady, you should have waited in the carriage.” Blessing stepped forward to block her view as best he could.
“Go to your carriage, Becca. I’ll join you there momentarily.” It was the only place he could be sure she wouldn’t encounter any further debauchery. Blessing seemed to agree. He offered another of his curt nods and escorted her toward the front door.
“I could only find tea, lover.” His scantily clad paramour sashayed into the room and held out a steaming cup. Maeve, that was her name.
“Thank you, sweet.” Grey retrieved the cup and took a quick sip, burning his fingers on the scorching porcelain and his tongue on the searing hot liquid. “Could you find me a shirt too?”
She grinned indulgently and bent at the waist, giving him a delicious view as she retrieved his hopelessly wrinkled white dress shirt from a spot near the settee. Handing him the garment, she lifted onto her toes for a kiss. Grey slipped his arms into the shirt and placed a quick peck on the tip of her nose. “I must speak to a lady and will return shortly.”
“A lady?” she teased.
“An old family friend.” Grey didn’t mind the snide pitch of Maeve’s tone as much as the thread of jealousy. His strict rules for any liaison were brevity and freedom. He could promise his lovers passion, sensual satisfaction, and nothing more. Ever.
Without another word, he made his way out the front door and into the Fennston carriage. Blessing stood guard outside the vehicle, as if expecting a horde of Grey’s drugged, oversexed friends to mount an assault.
Lady Fennston looked relieved to find him dressed, if thoroughly disheveled.
“What is it, Becca? What’s brought you to London?”
“Shh.” She lifted a gloved finger to her lips. “Blessing knows of the situation, but the coachman does not. We need to keep this as quiet as we can.”
Grey noted the fine lines around her chastising eyes, the stubborn set of her mouth. She was still every inch the woman who’d become a kind of older sister to him after his brother’s death, offering consolation and censure in equal measure. As Richard would have done.
Despite her frown, she looked well. Apparently, marriage suited the woman his brother had hoped to wed. Strange. Especially since her union had been a hastily arranged match with his boring cousin Alistair Fennston only a year after Richard’s death.
“What situation?” Grey whispered, bracing his elbows on his knees.
She gnawed at her lower lip, as if the words were difficult to speak, or she harbored uncertainty about telling him. Her silence ratcheted the tension in his body.
“Liddy?” Grey’s heart sank into his belly and a chill chased down his spine. “Tell me she’s all right.”
Becca swallowed hard. “I’m afraid I don’t know where she is, Jasper. That’s the trouble. Liddy has gone missing.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” The pounding in his head built to an orchestral crescendo. “How can a sixteen-year-old girl vanish?”
“She’s seventeen, as of three months past.”
“Yes.” Grey clenched his teeth and tried to focus on anything beyond the throbbing rush of blood in his ears. “I sent her a gift, didn’t I?”
“The necklace is one of her prized possessions.” Becca’s voice broke, and she pressed a hand to her chest. “She never took it off.”
“Have you gone to the authorities? What does my father say? And Alistair?” Why had she bypassed all the responsible men in the family and come to him?
“Only a trusted few know of her disappearance. And now you.” She sat up straight against the cushions but kept her voice low. “I truly believe this involves a passing infatuation with a young man. Informing my husband or the authorities would tarnish her reputation. Alistair can be rather unforgiving about such matters, and telling your father would only cause him to worry. The earl needs all the strength he can muster right now. If we can find Liddy quickly, we might avert lasting consequences. Your sister is too trusting, a bit naïve, but she’s not a wanton.”
Liddy had always been a silly girl, willing to risk her heart and plunge wholeheartedly into a bit of adventure. A rake wouldn’t have to work very hard to gain her trust and lead her astray.
“Who?” Grey cracked his knuckles, already imagining which rotter’s face he’d get to pummel.
“I have my suspicions, but they are only that as of yet.”
“She’s quite infatuated with the Earl of Westby.”
Grey frowned. “Westby? What was he doing in Derbyshire?” And why had anyone allowed the infamous scoundrel anywhere near his impressionable sister?
“Phyllida has been in London for the last few weeks.” His cousin’s wife bit the inside of her cheek and cast a gaze out the carriage window. “We wished to give her a reprieve from the gloom at Longcross. My aunt Violet agreed to host her for a fortnight, but Liddy asked to extend her visit.”
“Your aunt Violet is so old she rarely remembers which day of the week it is. No one bothered to inform me Liddy was in town?”
“Why would we?” Becca faced him now, anger flashing in her hazel eyes. She no longer made any attempt to quiet her voice. “You abandoned your family, your home, your title. Alistair is more of a son to your father than you are. Would you wish—”
She continued speaking, but Grey clambered out of the carriage and slammed the door behind him, stomping back into his iniquitous den.
So much truth so early in the morning was doing his head in. He needed to wash and dress and confront Westby immediately. The thought of his sister anywhere near the man made him nauseated.
“Jasper, I’m sorry. My words were cruel.”
He turned to find Rebecca on his doorstep, hesitating as if she did not wish to reenter his nest of sinners.
“You’re forgiven, Becca. Nothing you said was untrue.” He might be a bloody good actor, but he did his best not to deceive himself. He knew what he was and all the ways he’d failed his family. “Alistair has taken on responsibilities I’m content to ignore. It’s a relief to know you both reside at Longcross with Father and . . . ” His sister’s name caught in his throat.
“Let’s go now and speak to Lord Westby.”
“No!” He shouted the word and then worked to tame his temper. “We are not going anywhere. I shall go.”
“What if he won’t speak to you?” Becca took one wary step over the threshold. “I recall how much you dislike the man.”
Grey narrowed his gaze. “You remember my complaining about a schoolmate?” His connection with the earl was years past. Now he only knew the wretch via his reputation for seducing innocent young women.
“I recall your coming home at Michaelmas and not wishing to return to Eton.” That unwavering amber-green gaze of hers reminded him of a time he preferred to forget.
The first visit home after his brother’s death, he’d been awkward and miserable in his own grief. He’d encountered an inconsolable Becca and been completely unable to offer comfort. In fact, he’d railed at her. A childish tantrum. He’d blamed her for his brother’s death. Only later did he realize every vitriolic word had been directed at himself. Neither of them had spoken of the incident since.
“I understand men like Westby, Becca. Many would say we’re cut from the same cloth.” Though Grey took care never to beguile innocents. He favored women who shared his desire for discreet, short-lived affairs.
Becca frowned, assessing him in an apparently unimpressed perusal. He hadn’t looked in a mirror in days, but he imagined his unshaven state of dissipation failed to inspire much confidence.
“Go back to Derbyshire. Alistair will wonder where you’ve gone.” For once in his life, Grey needed to do something right.
Taking two more steps inside the townhouse, Becca insisted, “You must find her quickly. She’s due back at Longcross next week. Your father and Alistair will begin asking questions if she’s gone any longer.”
“I understand.” He wouldn’t need a week. Energy fizzed in his veins. He’d tear London to shreds to find her, if that’s what it took.
“Here.” She slid a folded bit of paper from the wrist of one of her gloves.
“A list of Liddy’s acquaintances in London, including the gentlemen she mentioned in her letters home.”
“She kept extremely busy, I see.” There were four gentlemen’s names listed, all of whom Grey was sufficiently familiar with to know none was a suitable match for his sister.
“Wouldn’t you, if you were seventeen?” Becca glanced toward his shambles of a library. “Perhaps you still do.” After pulling up her hood, she started toward the door, then stopped and glanced back at him. “Good luck.”
Grey offered a reassuring grin. Yet as he watched Blessing assist her into the Fennston carriage for the long journey back to Derbyshire, one thought dominated.
Luck wouldn’t help him now.
He needed what he did not possess. After years of indulging his urges and investing as little of himself as possible, he’d given up on being the kind of man his brother would have been—courageous and honorable.
He squinted at the list of names Becca had given him. All were men he’d known in youth or met through his family’s social engagements. None was a friend. He had few of those left from his old life. His gut twisted at the notion of any rogue harming Phyllida, deceiving her, breaking her too-vulnerable heart.
“Bloody rotting hell.” He was the wrong man to save anyone. What a sodding irony. The Earl of Stanhope’s most debauched offspring was now tasked with preserving his sister’s honor.
His twin talents in playacting and seduction would be of no use.
Liddy deserved more than a reprobate actor searching for her. Yet she also deserved more than a lifetime of judgmental glances for what was likely a bit of youthful recklessness. He didn’t wish her to begin adulthood burdened with regrets.
He’d chalked up enough of those for both of them.