The Rake to Rescue Her

By: Julia Justiss

Chapter One

It was her.

Shock rocked him like the blast of air from a passing cannonball. Struck numb in its wake, Alastair Ransleigh, late of His Majesty’s First Dragoons, stared at the tall, dark-haired woman approaching from the other side of Bath’s expansive Sidney Gardens.

Even as his disbelieving mind told him it couldn’t be her, he knew on some level deeper than reason that it was Diana. No other woman had that graceful, lilting step, as if dancing as she walked.

Heart thundering, he exhaled a great gasping breath, still unable to move or tear his gaze from her.

So had she glided into the room the day he’d first met her, bringing a draught of spring air and enchantment into the Oxford study where the callow collegian he’d once been had gone to consult her father, a noted scholar.

Memory swooped down and sank in vicious claws. Just so he’d watched her, delirious with delight, as she walked into the Coddingfords’ ballroom eight and a half years ago. Awaited her signal to approach, so her father might announce their engagement to the assembled guests.

Instead, she’d given her arm to the older man who had followed her in. The Duke of Graveston, he’d belatedly recognised. The man who then announced that Diana was to marry him.

A sudden impact at knee level nearly knocked him over. ‘Uncle Alastair!’ his six-year-old nephew Robbie shrieked, hugging him around the legs while simultaneously jumping up and down. ‘When did you get here? Are you staying long? Please say you are! Can you take me to get Sally Lunn cakes? And my friend, too?’

Jolted back to the present, Alastair returned the hug before setting the child at arm’s length with hands that weren’t quite steady. Fighting off the compulsion to look back across the gardens, he made himself focus on Robbie.

‘I’ve only just arrived, and I’m not sure how long I’ll stay. Your mama told me you’d gone to the Gardens with Nurse, so I decided to fetch you. Yes, we’ll get cakes. Where’s your friend?’

Still distracted, he followed his nephew’s pointing finger towards a boy about Robbie’s age, dressed neatly in nankeens and jacket. The child looked up at him shyly, the dark hair curling over his forehead shadowing his blue, blue eyes.

Diana’s eyes.

With another paralysing shock, he realised that Robbie’s friend must be her son.

The son that should have been his.

Pain as sharp as acid scalded his gut, followed by a wave of revulsion. Buy the boy cake? He’d as soon give sustenance to a viper!

Shocked by the ferocity of his reaction, he hauled himself under control. Whatever had occurred between himself and Diana was no fault of this innocent child.

It was the suddenness of it, seeing her again after so long with no warning, no time to armour himself against a revival of the anguish of their bitter parting. The humiliation of it, he thought, feeling his face redden.

Certain there must be some mistake, he’d run to her. Desperate to have her deny it, or at the very least, affirm the truth to his face, he’d shouted after her as the Duke warned him off and swept her away. Never once as he followed them did she glance at him before his cousins dragged him, still shouting, out of the ballroom...

Hurt pierced him, nearly as sharp as on that night he remembered with such grisly clarity. An instant later, revitalising anger finally scoured away the pain.

Ridiculous to expend so much thought or emotion on the woman, he told himself, sucking in a deep, calming breath. She’d certainly proved herself unworthy of it. He’d got over her years ago.

Though, he thought sardonically, this unexpected explosion of emotion suggested he hadn’t banished the incident quite as effectively as he’d thought. He had, however, mastered a salutary lesson on the perfidy of females. They could be lovely, sometimes entertaining, and quite useful for the purpose for which their luscious bodies had been designed, but they were cold-hearted, devious, and focused on their own self-interest.

So, after that night, he had treated them as temporary companions to be enjoyed, but never trusted. And never again allowed close enough to touch his heart.

So he would treat Diana now, with cordial detachment.

His equilibrium restored, he allowed himself to glance across the park. Yes, she was still approaching. Any moment now, she would notice him, draw close enough to recognise him.

Would a blush of shame or embarrassment tint those cheeks, as well it should? Or would she brazen it out, cool and calm as if she hadn’t deceived, betrayed and humiliated him before half of London’s most elite Society?

Despite himself, Alastair tensed as she halted on the far side of the pathway, holding his breath as he awaited her reaction.