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The Rake's Rainbow

The Rake's Rainbow by Allison Lane
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Caroline Cummings, a talented vicar's daughter, is inadvertently compromised by Thomas Mannering, rake and second son of an earl. They are forced to marry, though Thomas is obsessed with a now-married London beauty. While Caroline works to understand her tormented husband and build a life with him, he struggles to maintain his honor and their social position in Regency society.

Regency Romance by Allison Lane; originally published by Signet and winner of Romantic Times Best First Regency award for 1996.

Belgrave House; January 1996
229 pages; ISBN 9780451196668
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Rake's Rainbow
Author: Allison Lane
 
Excerpt

How can I go through with this?

The Honourable Thomas Mannering slouched beside a scarred, wooden table in the Laughing Dog’s taproom. One hand supported a head that threatened to roll off his shoulders. The other upended a wine bottle, dribbling the last drops down the side of his glass. The empty bottle joined two of its mates on the floor.

Alicia.

His love’s angelic face wavered insubstantially against the smoky gloom, her sparkling violet-blue eyes and golden ringlets refusing to vanish. What horrible pressures had her unfeeling parents brought to bear against her sweet innocence?  Had they threatened her?  Locked her away?  Beat her?  Had she even been informed before the notice appeared in the paper? 

That was his worst fear – and had been for months. Frowning at his newly emptied glass, he imperiously demanded another bottle from the buxom barmaid. His eyes assessed her abundant charms before he recalled that there was no time to dally this night. Shudders wracked him at the memory.

How could he do it? 

How could he not? 

Had he a choice? 

The room careened dizzily in the flickering light of an ill-adjusted lantern. He squinted, focusing just enough to pour more wine.

How long had it been since his world collapsed in ruins?  How many months since Alicia had pledged her undying love in Lady Debenham’s rose garden?  His loins tightened as he recalled their passionate embrace. Floating home, he had planned in meticulous detail the words that would request permission to pay his addresses, only to descend into hell the very next morning when the Post announced her betrothal to Viscount Darnley. The notice had to have been submitted before the ball. Darnley had not even attended.

Had she known?

No!  She would never have played such a deceitful trick on one she loved. Nor had she willingly accepted her fate. Her distress hurt him worse than his own pain.

The new bottle emptied as he tried to forget his last interview with the love of his life. She had received him a week later in the morning room of her father’s Berkeley Square town house….

“Papa demanded this betrothal,” she sobbed, tears glistening in her wide, ingenuous eyes as her pacing brought her close enough for him to touch. His fists clenched with the effort of not claiming one last blissful embrace. “I tried to change his mind, Thomas, but he was adamant. He refused to countenance a connection with a younger son of limited means.”

He gasped at this intelligence. No one had ever questioned his background. How dare an upstart baron who was only the third to hold his own title?  Thomas might be a younger son, but the Marchgate earldom dated to Richard Lionheart, and his ancestors had arrived with William.

But before he could protest, Alicia smiled in that radiant way that always sent his temperature soaring and his blood boiling.

“My love, we must look to the future. You know Lord Darnley is an old man and not in the best of health,” she confided in a husky voice that started fires raging through his loins.

He shuddered at the image of his angel forced to submit to an aging libertine like Darnley.

“He cannot long survive. You must be patient, my dearest Thomas. As a wealthy widow I can marry where I choose. Papa will no longer control my life.”  Resting a delicate hand trustingly against his chest, she sighed, a single tear escaping to trickle down one alabaster cheek. Her violet eyes begged for understanding, golden ringlets trembling in agitation.

How could she endure such a plight? 

Still bleary from a week-long stupor, he nearly crushed her in his arms. But embracing another man’s betrothed would violate his honor. Nor could he pledge fidelity to another’s wife, or to a hypothetical widow – not and maintain his self-respect. Her face twisted into a momentary expression of – annoyance?  Of course not, he chided himself. She was as disturbed as he over this damnable mess, and as prone to pain.

“Do not hold this frightful coil against me, my love,” she continued, her hand sliding up to his shoulder, coursing desire through his body that threatened to undermine his precarious control. “I am counting on you to see me through this trial.”

She did not understand the havoc she was wreaking with those caressing fingers, he reminded himself. Her natural sensuality was part of what attracted him, as were her vulnerability, her compassion, and her exquisite taste. He wanted nothing more than to protect her from life’s cruelties. But fate denied him that role.

He managed to leave, honor intact, but, oh, how he wanted her!  Why would a loving parent condemn a daughter to such a mésalliance. Surely not merely for title and money!  He could have found both in a younger, more personable suitor. Corley had been chasing her all season. With a fortune larger than Darnley’s, an earl’s title in hand and a marquess’s guaranteed when his uncle died, he was by far the better catch. Corley had been Thomas’s principal rival since the day he had first beheld the newest beauty at Almack’s.

He had never considered marrying so soon, expecting several more years of freedom before settling down. Then he caught sight of Alicia across the room and everything changed. She was a vision of heaven in a delicate blue gown, an ethereal being framed in a cloud of mist. She met his eyes and smiled. And he was lost. Her purity and innocence pierced his soul. Circe could not have enslaved him more thoroughly.

He shuddered.

In a futile effort to forget, he embarked on a debauch that put his previous rakehelling to shame, squandering each night on wine, women, and faro. Every afternoon he pummeled opponents at Jackson’s – all of whom displayed Darnley’s face to his bleary eyes – before resuming his endless rounds of brothels, gaming hells, and greenrooms, all seeming alike after uncounted bottles of brandy. He succeeded in losing track of time, losing large amounts of money, and losing his legendary fastidiousness in both dress and chère amies. But he could not lose sight of Alicia’s face. The memories refused to die.

Her wedding came and went. He drank even more, fighting to banish the image of her consorting with Darnley. Autumn rolled by without notice. His closest friends fought to rescue him from the brink of disaster, but without success. For the first time in his life he cared nothing for what others thought of him. Reality was too barren to face sober.

But now he was caught in an even worse coil. Three days before, he had been summoned home to stand on the carpet where generations of Mannerings had meted out punishment to errant offspring. The Earl of Marchgate pinned his second son with a withering glare and rang a peal over his head the likes of which he had never endured in all his five-and-twenty years.

“Look at you!” the earl had stormed, a condemning finger pointed at his disheveled appearance. “Bloodshot eyes, sallow skin, bosky at two in the afternoon!  Eight months and you still wear your heart on your sleeve. Is this the face a Mannering presents to the world?  Where is your pride?  Your honor?  Your debauchery is no longer just the latest on-dit, nor can it be fobbed off as yet another example of a young cub sowing wild oats. You have become the laughingstock of the ton. And you are killing your mother.”

Thomas raised stricken eyes to his parent. As close to sober as he had been in months, he was appalled at his own behavior, aware at last of just how low he had sunk. “Dear Lord,” he whispered, “you know I would never deliberately harm her.”

“This must stop,” continued the earl, his tired voice suddenly laced with pain. “At the very least you must leave town. Eleanor comes out this spring. Unfair though it might be, your present behavior will seriously damage her chances.”  He noted the flush spreading across his son’s face and sighed in relief. Perhaps the boy was still reachable. His voice gentled. “Go down to Crawley. Try to rebuild your life. How deeply are you dipped?”

“Nothing I cannot manage,” Thomas muttered darkly.

“Nonsense,” snapped the earl, anger again mastering his face. “I’ve had six duns at my door this week over your debts. I will not have a son of mine in prison. Until Robert begets an heir, you stand second to one of the oldest titles in England. Now how deeply are you dipped?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted with a groan, dropping heavily into a chair and covering his face with his hands. Silence stretched uncomfortably. He did not look up until a hand grasped his shoulder.

“Are you willing to make a clean start?” asked the earl quietly.

He nodded.

“Is Crawley mortgaged?”

He nodded again.

“Gather everything you owe,” commanded the earl. “I want everything – vowels, tradesmen’s bills, mortgage. I will pay the lot. But that will be all. Your allowance will continue for one year, then cease. Go to Crawley. You have a year to make it profitable.”

“But Crawley is in ruins,” he protested.

“Then I suggest you remain sober enough to restore it. It should be a very lucrative estate. And if you run short of money, there is always your inheritance.”

“You know the conditions.”

“True – you would have to marry. Quite a problem. What chit would have you after the cake you’ve made of yourself?”

“You cannot be serious!”

“Not entirely, ‘tis true. There are always antidotes desperate enough to wed anyone,” the earl acknowledged brutally. “I know Lord Huntsley would welcome a suit for his youngest daughter. And she comes with ten thousand pounds.”

“But at what price?” muttered Thomas to himself, suppressing a shudder at the vision of Josephine Huntsley.

Though Marchgate voiced no ultimatum, the terms were clear. Thomas could hardly comprehend the sacrifice demanded for plastering over his recent follies – banishment, poverty, and a lifetime of Miss Huntsley.

He groaned.

“Think about it,” urged the earl. “They are presently at home in Devon. I will expect your bills tomorrow,” he added dismissively.

“Father–”  He paused, then continued in a firmer voice, determined to salvage at least a modicum of self-respect. “Buy the mortgage if you like, but do not dismiss it. I find I would prefer to discharge that one myself.”

He nodded firmly and left the room, his brain frantically listing all the respectable females he knew, in hopes of turning up someone better than Josephine. Anyone would be better. He could manage without a dowry as long as he had the inheritance.

But his bravura had not outlasted a round of afternoon calls. His reception finally forced an admission that not only was he a younger son of limited means, he was also considered a heartless libertine, an inveterate gamester, and a hopeless sot. Fit company for Prinny, perhaps, but matchmaking mamas barred their doors lest his very presence compromise their daughters. The polite world smiled indulgently on the sowing of wild oats, but a dedicated rakehell was acceptable only if he was a wealthy, high-ranking peer. And the highest sticklers even rejected those.

Three days later the Honourable Thomas Mannering sprawled untidily across a taproom table, his glass drooping from numbed fingers, the last portion of wine from his fourth bottle running across the uneven surface to pool under his left ear.

How could he face the fate that awaited him in Devon. Horse-faced, simperingly empty-headed, clumsily inept Miss Josephine Huntsley. Her very presence was penance, that ubiquitous girlish giggle grating on his ears until he could barely suppress screams. Everything she did turned to disaster. Within a week of her come-out, she had tripped Oaksford (leaving him sprawled on the ballroom floor), overturned a punch bowl at the Lewiston soiree, been invited to leave Almack’s after insulting Lady Jersey and criticizing the refreshments, and made a spectacle of herself on Bond Street when she stepped on her hem, causing a rip that bared her nearly to the waist. The girl needed a keeper. Living with Medusa would be preferable.

But what choice did he have?  He must take a wife. Immediately. Without capital, he would lose what remained of his only possession.

Alicia, how can I live without you? 

A yard of tin sounded, stirring a commotion that filtered vaguely into his brain. The mail had arrived. He staggered to his feet, the last vestige of duty sending him to his fate.

* * * *

Caroline Cummings was halfway into the mail coach when an exceedingly foxed gentleman stumbled against her back, regaining his balance by throwing an arm across her shoulders. The motion slid one hand under her cloak where it clutched one breast.

She gasped in speechless outrage, grabbing the door frame to keep from crashing onto the filthy floor. Her threadbare cloak, already soaked from the cold January rain, would doubtless disintegrate if ground into the mud.

“Beg pardon,” he mumbled.

Glaring into a grinning face now only inches from her own, she pushed his arm and hand aside, but could think of no reply that would not be roundly criticized as unchristian by her father and unladylike by her mother. He needed a shave. And some manners.

Shivering, she took her place by the window, then glared again. Not only was he boarding the coach, the only remaining seat was next to her own. She groaned. Would the long journey into Cornwall be plagued by this amorous drunk? 

Why had Papa insisted that she travel straight through instead of spending the nights at inns?  After all, she was merely a governess, no longer expected to travel with a maid. And at two-and-twenty, with no looks to recommend her, she was already firmly on the shelf.

A glance at her traveling companions in no way improved her mood. Three people slept wedged into the opposite seat:  a heavy-set farmer reeking of onions, whose stentorian breathing already grated on her nerves and whose outstretched legs left little room for her own; an exceptionally stout, red-faced woman who – judging from the way she leaned against his shoulder – was probably his wife; and a thin young man crushed into the corner, possibly a clerk. Even the din of the inn yard, as ostlers rushed new teams into the traces, failed to penetrate their slumbers. The third occupant of her own seat was awake, but there was little hope of company from that quarter. Well into middle age, the black-garbed spinster pursed disapprovingly thin lips and glared down a long, aristocratic nose. As the drunk dropped heavily onto the seat and slumped against Caroline’s shoulder, the lady sniffed loudly and edged farther into her own corner.

Caroline twice tried to force her tormentor to sit up, but finally abandoned the effort and determinedly stared out the window as the coach lurched onto the road. Perhaps reviewing her new position would divert her mind from her sudden trepidation.

Trepidation?  No. Fear. There, she had admitted it. She was terrified of stepping into the unknown. Shudders raced down her spine. From fear. From cold. From the rainwater seeping through her gown where the drunk’s head pressed into her shoulder. But she would survive. Pushing fear aside, she concentrated on the benefits of leaving home.

She was ideally suited to be a governess. It would be little different from what she had done for more than six years. As the third of eight daughters and four sons born to the Sheldridge Corners vicar, she was long accustomed to dealing with children. Since age sixteen she had disciplined and educated the younger half of the family.

Fortune had smiled upon her own youth when the neighboring squire had invited her to join his daughters’ lessons. The genial squire had also allowed her the run of his extensive library and spent hours discussing the many books she devoured. Thus she was more learned than most young men in spite of the time she had spent mastering ladies’ accomplishments and overseeing her siblings. She had established regular school hours for them, opening the lessons to several village children after the first year. Some of her former pupils had since been apprenticed as clerks.

But times were bad and getting worse. The wars dragged endlessly on and tithes were down after consecutive years of poor harvests. Costs rose ever higher until the vicar could no longer support his offspring, though five had already moved out. Despite lacking dowries, Caroline’s two older sisters had found husbands the previous summer, for they were comely lasses, well-trained in household management. Constance married a nearby solicitor, and Prudence attracted the eye of a still-young, widowed baronet with two small daughters but no heir. After intensive coaching, Peter won an Oxford scholarship to take orders. Paul joined the navy, which did not demand he purchase his commission as did the army. Elizabeth obtained a position as companion to the Dowager Viscountess Barton, a blessing as the lady lived only four miles from Sheldridge Corners so Liza could visit the family on her days out.

That left only Caroline of an age to move elsewhere. At seventeen, Anne was able to take over her teaching chores. So she accepted a governess post in distant Cornwall, where she would educate three young girls (brats, that unquenchable internal voice reminded – spoiled, brainless hoydens) and their sensitive brother, whose delicate constitution prohibited the rigors of public school. Though not an ideal position, she was nonetheless lucky to find it.

Her father had been strangely hesitant over agreeing, despite his efforts to arrange the post. “It is so far away,” he mourned, pacing the study in agitation. “And we know nothing of the family.”

“I must accept,” she stated calmly. “And with luck I can send you fifteen pounds a year.”

“But that is more than half of your salary,” he protested.

“It matters not. And Anne is more than capable of taking over my chores so Mama will not be overburdened.”

“Perhaps you should wait one more year,” he offered. “I had hoped you would one day marry.”

She thrust her own unrealistic dreams firmly aside. “Papa, we have discussed this before, as you well know. We lack both social standing and money. Pru and Connie managed to attract beaux due to their beauty, but I can never expect to repeat their successes.”

“Fustian!” exploded the vicar. “You are a fine-looking girl.”

“Be reasonable, Father.”  She shrugged. “I am no antidote, ‘tis true. But I can never claim the sort of beauty that compensates for a missing dowry. Nor can I remain content watching you and Mama struggle when I could contribute to the family well-being.”

He had accepted the inevitable without further argument, though she knew he suffered over his inability to properly provide for his children. She and Mama had united in opposition when he wanted to ask his brother for help. Uncle Arthur was barely scraping sustenance out of his estate and was in no position to support others.

Stifling the vision of a life of leisure she could never obtain, she continued to enumerate the benefits of this post.

Cornwall was lovely – she again ignored the voice bemoaning that the house was quite isolated. A little common sense and discipline would turn her charges into models of decorum. And where else could she impart her knowledge to a young man?  She refused to entertain fears that she would have no support from that doting mother on questions of discipline, and would receive only the barest of necessities in the way of room and board. That horrid voice whispered that none but the worst nipfarthing would expect her to teach both son and daughters. Nor would she dwell on the loneliness she would undoubtedly suffer after a lifetime spent in a roisterous, loving enclave like the vicarage. And she refused to question why she would be the fourth to hold the position this year alone. An involuntary shudder raced down her spine, which she immediately attributed to the cold and damp.

A loud belch spewed brandy fumes in her face, effectively masking the farm couple’s stench and directing her thoughts toward her immediate problem. Again she tried to push the drunk from her numbed shoulder. His hat rolled onto the floor, disclosing that the moisture seeping through her cloak was wine. His hair was soaked with it. What could possibly make this journey worse? 

Hardly had she formulated the question when the coach lurched sharply over a series of ruts, bucking like a boat on a storm-tossed sea. The drunkard lunged across her, threw open the window, and barely shoved his head out before casting up his accounts. His stomach heaved against her hips. Swallowing her own reaction, she tried to hold the sweating, shaking body away as he continued his endless retching. Finally, one hand dug into her arm and he dragged himself back inside.

“S-sorry,” he whispered shakily, then collapsed onto her lap, his dark curls now dripping from the pelting rain.

“Serves you right for drinking so much,” she snapped angrily but he had passed out. She exchanged an exasperated glance with the spinster, who sniffed loudly and turned to glare out her own window.

Lacking the strength to move him, she closed the window, resigned to the most uncomfortable night of her life. Please, Lord, don’t let this journey be a portent of my new life, she prayed silently.

* * * *

An especially bad bump jarred Caroline awake. Amazingly, she had dozed off. The drunkard still sprawled across her lap, her hand unaccountably holding him in place. Judging from the numbness in her legs, several hours must have elapsed. Even the spinster was asleep.

She shivered. Water had seeped through both cloak and dress, chilling her as the temperature approached freezing. Damp gloves offered little protection for her fingers. Half-boots did nothing to warm her toes. A glance at the window showed rain falling harder than ever.

Surely even mail coaches slowed in such weather… But the driver was loudly urging his horses faster. The wheels skidded sideways, sending her heart into her throat. Another lurch dug the farmer’s elbow into his wife and she gasped.

“Harry!” she screamed, shaking him violently. “Wake up!  Something’s mighty wrong.”

Snorts and wheezes were his only response.

Was some young sprig tooling the mail coach?  Caroline sobbed in terror while the fat lady continued her exhortations of Harry. Though common on the stage, such irregularities were supposed to never happen on the King’s mail. But their increasingly reckless pace convinced her that they were victim to just such a prank. No professional driver would handle the ribbons with this reckless abandon.

They swung wildly around a curve, the drunk’s weight crushing her into the corner, his pressure making it difficult to breathe. The spinster’s piercing screech woke Harry and the clerk.

“Stop, I say!” shouted Harry, pounding on the panel separating them from the driver’s box.

“We’ll all die!” sobbed his wife, burying her head in his shoulder.

“Imbecile!  Stop, or I’ll report you at the next posting inn!” he continued loudly, to no avail. He opened the window to repeat his demands, now punctuated by obscenities, but accomplished nothing beyond admitting freezing rain and wind into the coach.

The drunk groaned, his hand pawing at Caroline’s bosom before he again passed out.

“Wouldn’t do no good if ye did report the bloody bastard. Who’d believe ye?  He must be mad,” muttered the clerk, his face gray with fear, both hands exerting a death grip on the strap.

“Watch your language, young man,” demanded the spinster. “There is a lady present.”

Another sharp bump slammed Caroline’s head into the roof, but failed to dislodge the beast in her lap.

“Harry, do something!” begged the wife, clutching his arm as the coach again skidded sideways.

“What the bloody ‘ell is you doin’?” shouted the mail’s guard from his perch up behind with the post. Scrabbling sounds moved along the roof and all eyes raised to follow his progress.

“Pray God the guard can slow us,” Caroline gasped, meeting the terror-stricken eyes of the farmer’s wife as another sickening lurch nearly landed them in the ditch. One of her hands dug into the drunk’s shoulder.

“This is the most despicable journey I have ever suffered. Such low company should never be allowed to board,” snapped the spinster, casting a look of such scorn at Caroline that she gasped in shock. “And now this!”  Back ramrod straight, she glared at the other passengers. Only her death grip on the strap detracted from her haughty disdain.

Opening her mouth to protest, Caroline screamed in terror as the coach leaned sharply around another corner, poised agonizingly on two wheels, then rolled down an embankment. A horse squealed with pain.

She watched in horror as her fellow passengers tumbled slowly in her direction. Then her head exploded in a cloud of sparks and the world went black.

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