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​Her Worthy Rake

Is falling for this rake a mistake?

Owen Tattershall might not have a title or immeasurable wealth like other gentlemen of his ilk, but he does have rather excellent taste in the waistcoat department-and taste counts for a lot amongst the ton. It also doesn't hurt that his adopted mother is the dowager Marchioness of Faye and his kind-of-cousin is the Duke of Woodhal. Unfortunately, prestige didn't save his family from the ravages of war, and now what's left is held together by nothing more than heartbreak, hope and bravado. To keep his memories of the war at bay, Owen immerses himself in his work ... until the day Sophy Calder comes colliding into his life.

Sophy has been fending for herself ever since her twin brother was press ganged to fight against Napoleon's forces. But the war ended almost two years ago, and still he hasn't returned. Knowing something dreadful has happened, Sophy is determined to find her missing brother, even if it means infiltrating the world that snatched him from her. But when she encounters Owen, she quickly finds her growing attraction for the only man who's taken her seriously threatening her long-mastered control.


Chapter 1

Sophy clutched her skirts in one hand so she could more easily clamber over the stone wall that marked the boundary between her brother’s farm and their neighbour’s. There was nobody about to see the imprudent flash of leg as it was Sunday and all were at church. Unlike the empty fields, Sophy’s thoughts were overcrowded. They swirled around her head faster than she could hold onto them.

‘Of all the maddeningly idiotic men!’ Clear of the wall, she tugged the letter she’d received just yesterday from her reticule. She’d read it that many times that already the original folds were beginning to wear thin.

Close on eighteen months ago the war had ended and Napoleon had been exiled to St Helena. Six months ago to the day her brother’s ship had docked at Plymouth after many long years at sea. And now his captain had the gall to respond to her inquiry about her brother’s whereabouts with a simple I have no record of him ever being on board my ship.

She reached the end of the field, where the land gave way to the river. Without pause, she turned and began to march along the boundary. She knew these fields as well as she knew the cracks running through the plaster of her bedchamber ceiling. She’d lived in Greyworth for almost every minute of her six and twenty years.

It was six months since HMS Merlina had returned her crew to English soil, so where was Sherry? Sophy wanted to scream the question to the wide expanse of cerulean sky. Instead, she put on a fresh burst of speed. She always thought better when her feet were moving faster than her thoughts. She didn’t believe a word of Captain Stott’s hastily scrawled denial. Sherry’s name had been printed in the newspaper as one of the Merlina crew, and Sherry himself had written to Sophy numerous times, telling her of his adventures at sea. So why had he not returned home?

Sophy had written her own letters these last six months—countless pleas to the Navy Office and Admiralty House. She’d even written to Sherry’s crewmates, those she’d managed to locate. But not one man had replied with news of his whereabouts. Sophy crumpled Captain Stott’s letter in her fist.

She hadn’t travelled so far that she could not see Greyworth Farm, with its two tall spruce trees, standing guard, either side. She’d been born in that house—a whole nine and a half minutes before her brother. The happiest hours of their childhood had been spent in that house. And their parents had eventually died in that house. Sherry would not abandon it for all the world. Nor would he abandon her. He’d promised he wouldn’t; in every letter he’d written her, he’d sworn to return home as soon as the war ended.

And end it had, well and truly, but still there was no sign of him. Not even a missive to tell her if he was safe. Which had to mean only one thing: Sherry’s failure to return was not of his own volition.

Lifting her threadbare skirts up almost to her knees, she clambered back over the wall, heading home. The shutters were drawn, and the knocker had been taken off the front door, as though they were the only reasons her neighbours never came calling these days. There were planks nailed over a smashed window on the second storey and a hole in the roof she couldn’t afford to have repaired. When Sherry had been pressed into the Navy, Sophy had been left to fend for herself. She didn’t even have access to the farm’s funds, which were all in Sherry’s name, and so everything was suffering from neglect. Genteel poverty, she supposed it was called. Only there wasn’t very much that was genteel about a leaky roof, a damp basement and draughty rooms.

The only signs of life were that of her housekeeper, working in the kitchen garden. No doubt organising Sophy’s dinner, to be eaten at the empty table where all Sophy’s family had once dined together.
Sophy didn’t slow. She was done with waiting. She was done with letter writing and civility. She was done with lonely dinners. She was done with constant neglect.

Tomorrow was Monday, and all good Irish women knew Monday morning was the best time to begin any new undertaking, as her mother had been fond of saying.

Lancashire wasn’t so very far from London that she could not make the journey by mail coach, as uncomfortable as that prospect was. Once there, neither the Comptroller of the Navy nor the Commissioners of the Admiralty could possibly refuse to tell her all they knew of her brother.

‘I’ll petition the Regent himself if I have to,’ she told the empty fields. Or sail right into Poseidon’s lair.

* * *

One month later

Yesterday, His Grace, Calum Callaghan, Duke of Woodhal, wed the Honourable Miss Ellen Burney at a private ceremony in Mayfair. The newlyweds have already departed London for an extended tour of the Woodhal family estates.

The Times, 1 June 1817

Owen Tattershall might not have a title. He might not have immeasurable wealth. He might not even have a racing curricle with two matched bays like other gentlemen of his ilk, but he did have rather excellent taste—especially in the waistcoat department—and taste counted for a lot in this wretched world.

Though, honestly, a little more cash wouldn’t have gone astray.

Well, a lot more.

He stared incredulously at his tailor and friend, the only man in London with whom he trusted the creation of his wardrobe. ‘Not pirates?’

‘In the English Channel?’ Jack ran a dark hand over his short-cut hair. There was a touch of grey at his temples, the only real sign he was closer to fifty than thirty. ‘It’s not believable enough.’

Owen scanned the papers before him, his own scrawling handwriting filling them from edge to edge, front and back, with barely any white space between the lines. ‘Not even smugglers?’ He’d worked half the night, finally convinced he’d devised a plan to save himself from the dreaded sagging middle that was the second act of his latest novel—and the bane of his career as a mid-list author.

‘Nope.’ Jack’s answer was unrelenting in its honesty.

‘But they could hide at Guernsey or that other one, whatever it’s called.’

‘It would take the Navy no time at all to find them. And what of her evil uncle? Isn’t he supposed to be a naval captain? He’d know exactly where to look for her.’ Jack settled back into his chair. ‘I think you should start again with the whole of chapter twelve. Did she even need to sneak aboard the ship in the first place? That’s not where I would have hidden.’

‘Fuck.’ Jack was right. It was a lousy chapter. Owen shoved the pages into his pocket, heedless of crumpling them; it didn’t matter, when he’d be throwing the whole lot into the fire as soon as he returned home.

Jack’s tiny shop didn’t have a fireplace. Most of the space was taken up by the worktable that he used when designing patterns and cutting fabric. The shop was bitterly cold in winter, and it stunk in the summer because it was close to the Thames.

It was strange, maybe, that Owen got along better with Jack than any of the men he’d once gone to school with, but it wasn’t a question he often lingered on. There wasn’t much point trying to dissect a friendship he was grateful for having. Taking his flask from the inner pocket of his jacket, he took a sip before offering it to Jack.

‘What of Mr Cash?’ Jack asked, naming their potential silent investor. He threw back a mouthful of Wood’s finest whisky, the good stuff Owen had pilfered when he’d last visited his cousin. ‘Have you heard any more news?’

His abrupt change of topic had Owen pacing a turn of the room, sidestepping the freestanding looking glass. ‘Not since Monday last, and I came here as soon as I received that missive.’

‘We can’t afford the cost of printing ourselves,’ Jack said for what could have been the hundredth time. ‘What of your own publisher—’

‘Still no.’ Owen winced. When he’d taken Jack’s idea of an illustrated book of embroidery patterns for men’s waistcoats to the publisher of his fiction novels, Penprase had rejected it outright, saying he wasn’t in the business of printing vanity projects.

But Jack’s designs weren’t a vanity project. They were incredibly ingenious, and there was sure to be a market for such creations, if only Jack had some way of reaching an audience. Owen was sure of it. He ran a hand over his waistcoat, his fingers skimming the intricate oak leaves and acorns in beautiful greens and golds, designed and sewn by Jack himself. It was a masterpiece. If Owen could have submitted it for consideration by the Royal Academy of Art for exhibition, he’d have done so in a heartbeat.

‘If the entirety of London Society isn’t wearing classic Jack Fox by the beginning of next Season then I’ll eat my best waistcoat,’ Owen vowed.

If Penprase wasn’t prepared to back Jack’s project, then Owen would himself. Well, he would if he’d had enough ready money. Neither he nor Jack could afford such a venture. Jack couldn’t even afford a shopfront along one of the fashionable shopping streets despite his prestigious skill with a needle and thread. And it wasn’t as if Owen’s books were bestsellers. He and his publisher both made a reasonable profit, but it wasn’t nearly enough for the kind of significant investment he had planned for Jack’s pattern book.

They needed Mr Cash and his money. Desperately.

‘If I just knew who he was, I would talk with him directly,’ Owen continued. ‘I could persuade him—’

‘Never going to happen,’ Jack snapped, a sudden hard note to his voice, and he handed Owen back his flask.

Owen winced. He knew that as well as Jack did. His own lawyers, White and Lerner, had been the ones to draw up the contract—still unsigned—and the very first stipulation of their silent investor had been that their identity remain a secret. All correspondence with the so-called Mr Cash came through White and Lerner, and even they didn’t know who he was. The address Mr Cash had given was a coffee house not so distant from Mayfair. All messages for Mr Cash were left with the owner, who’d had pigeonholes built into the wall behind the bar for just such anonymous note swapping.

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