So far Ashe Bedevere is my favorite rake from Bronwyn Scott‘s Rakes Beyond Redemption series. He’s a second son, just as Merrick St. Magnus is from the first book. As much as Ashe enjoys pleasures of the flesh and other rakish delights, his world is changed with one message from home. The time he thought he’d had to make things right is now gone, new responsibilities lie on his broad shoulders, and an American heiress stands in his way in more ways than one.
Genevra has retreated to the English countryside to put her disastrous marriage and resulting loss behind her. She’s made a success of the estate she purchased here and things are looking better for her. Until the arrival of Ashe Bedevere. Having what he wants casts suspicion on his advances and his motives. But how can a woman resist all that Ashe is as a man?
Ashton Bedevere: renowned libertine who can ruin a reputation quicker than other gentlemen can drink their brandy
After years in Italy, honing his skills in the delicious art of seduction, Ashe returns to London’s high-class establishments—preceded, of course, by his reputation for lavish opulence and unashamed wickedness.
Then his scandalous ways are abruptly ended by his father’s death. To claim what is rightfully his, notorious lothario Ashe must do the inconceivable—take a wife!
But who could possibly even think about marrying such a man? Certainly not the lovely Genevra Ralston. After all, she’d be finished in polite society. Wouldn’t she? Yet Ashe’s notorious charm and practiced touch could prove irresistible….
Now come meet Ashe and Neva.
Sex with Ashe Bedevere was one of the ‘Great Pleasures’ of the Season and not to be missed, which explained why Lady Hargrove was favouring him with a splendid pout and a peek-a-boo glimpse of her bosom beneath a carefully draped sheet in hopes of persuading him to stay.
‘Surely a few more minutes will not matter,’ she protested with a coy look, letting the sheet slip ever so provocatively over the curve of her hip.
Ashe shoved his arms through the sleeves of his shirt, dressing rapidly. Whatever he’d found appealing about Lady Hargrove’s feminine assets earlier in the evening had vanished in the wake of the note that had come for him. He pulled on his trousers and favoured her with a sinful smile designed to placate. ‘My dear, what I had in mind for us takes more than a few minutes.’
The promise of deferred pleasure was enough. Ashe eased out the door before she could argue, all his thoughts fixed on one goal: getting to Bedevere, the Earl of Audley’s family seat. Never mind that Bedevere was three days’ ride away. Never mind he hadn’t any idea of what to do once he got there. Never mind he could have answered numerous requests to return home in the past years and hadn’t. Never mind any of it. This time it was different. This time, the solicitor had written two desperate sentences. ‘Come home. Your father has died.’
Ashe sprinted the last few streets to his rooms on Jermyn Street, fuelled by a sense of urgency and impotence. He’d always thought he’d have more time.
Three days later
God and the devil in the details! Ashe swore none too softly and pulled his bay stallion to a jolting halt. This was Bedevere land? More to the point, this was his father’s land? He could hardly reconcile the weed-choked fields and broken stone fences lining the roadway with the once-fertile fields and immaculate roads of his youth. He’d seen plenty of the devil since he’d ridden on to Bedevere land and not much of God. How had it come to this?
A sharp pang of guilt stabbed at him deep and hard. He knew the answer.
It was his fault.
The current summons home wasn’t the first, but it would be the last. Ashe could have come home long before when the first bout of illness had settled in four years ago. He could have come home when his brother had gone round the bend two years ago for reasons still unclear to him. But he hadn’t and an extraordinary consequence had occurred as a result: the timeless fortitude of Bedevere had faltered, proven fallible at last. He’d waited too long and all this ruin could be laid at his feet.
It seemed an ironic twist of fate that he was now poised to be the curator of a place he’d so willingly fled in years past. The place had been perfect then, so unlike his imperfect self. It was less perfect now and he was still flawed—a broken king to rule a broken Camelot.
There was no use in putting it off. Ashe kicked his horse into a canter for the last ride home. His trunks would have arrived yesterday, signalling that he was not far behind. The aunts had probably been up since daybreak, anticipating his coming, and they would all be waiting.
All four of them. He was their protector now, a role he felt ill suited to play. He supposed that was part of the Bedevere legacy, too; the Bedevere women didn’t marry men who had the foresight to provide beyond the grave and the Bedevere males hadn’t much luck in living long enough to do it for them.
The rough-kept lands preceding the park were a blessing of sorts in that they prepared him for the sight of the manor. Ivy crawled rampant across the formerly pristine sandstone of the hall’s facade. A shutter hung loose from a second-storey window. Flowerbeds were overrun with plants that had long outgrown their intended shapes. Nature was having its way with the onceorderly estate.
Years ago, it had been a point of pride that Bedevere Hall, seat of the Audleys for four generations, was the gem of the county. It might not have been the largest home—Seaton Hall was bigger just a few miles to the south—but Bedevere was by far lovelier with its comely gardens and well-appointed views. From what Ashe could see trotting down the drive, there wasn’t much of that left now.
Ashe dismounted and steeled himself for what lay inside. If the outside looked this bad, he could only imagine what had taken place inside to allow such decay to be permissible. A lone stable boy ran up to take his horse. Ashe was tempted to ask him about the state of things, but decided against it. He’d rather see it all with his own eyes.
Ashe doubted he’d even finished knocking before the door swung open and time stalled. Gardener stood there, as tall and sombre as Ashe remembered him, perhaps a bit greyer, a bit thinner, but very much the same. Growing up, Ashe had thought it was funny to have a butler named Gardener and a gardener named Smith, who looked to be long gone from the state of things.
‘Mr Bedevere, welcome home.’ Gardener bowed, ‘I am sorry for the circumstances, sir.’
For a moment, Ashe almost looked behind him to see who else had followed him home—the greeting had been so very formal.
‘This way, sir,’ Gardener said. ‘You are expected.’
Ashe followed Gardener down the hall to the drawing room, making mental notes as they went: bare hall tables, faded rugs and curtains. There was a shabbiness to the house. But most striking was the emptiness. There were no maids polishing the staircase, no footmen awaiting errands. The usual bustle of the hall was silent. There was Gardener and the stable boy. Presumably there were more, including a cook, hopefully, but Ashe didn’t want to presume too much. It didn’t look promising.
Ashe paused outside the drawing-room door and took a deep breath. Beyond those doors lay a responsibility he’d eschewed for years. He had his reasons. It was a mean act of fate that all his efforts to avoid it had come to naught. The Bedevere legacy, the one thing he’d tried so hard to escape, had landed quite squarely in his lap anyway. Perhaps it was true that all roads lead home in the end.
‘Are you ready, sir?’ Gardener enquired. With years of impeccable service behind him, Gardener knew how to read his betters and had given him a few seconds to prepare himself.
‘Yes, I’m ready.’ Or not. Ashe squared his shoulders.
‘Yes, sir, I believe you are. Ready at last.’ Gardener’s eyes held the twinkle of approval.
‘I certainly hope so,’ Ashe replied with a nod of his head. He could see Gardener’s rendition of the tale below stairs already, full of admiration about how the young lord had ridden in, taking no time to fuss over his appearance after a long ride. Instead, he’d gone straight to his aunts.
Gardener had made a habit of seeing the best in him in his youth. Gardener would make him out to be an angel by evening. But if he was an angel, he was a very wicked one. Heaven forbid anyone at Bedevere ever learn what he’d been doing the moment the message of his father’s demise had arrived. In hindsight, ‘aggressively flirting’ with Lady Hargrove seemed akin to fiddling while Rome burned.
Gardener opened the door and cleared his throat. ‘Ladies, Mr Bedevere.’
Ashe stepped into the room, noticing the difference immediately. The curtains were faded, but the best of what was left in the house had been brought here. There were vases filled with flowers on the side tables, pillows on the sofas, little knick-knacks set about the room for decoration. Ashe saw the room for what it was: an oasis, or perhaps bastion was a better word—a last bastion of gentility against the bare realities that lay outside the drawing-room doors.
His eyes roved the room, taking in the surprising amount of occupants. His aunts were not alone; Leti-cia, Lavinia, Melisande and Marguerite were settled near the fireplace with a man he didn’t recognise, but it was the woman seated just beyond them, by the window overlooking the garden, who held his attention. She was of uncommon loveliness—dark-haired with wide grey eyes framed by equally dark lashes against the creamy backdrop of her skin. Even in a crowded London ballroom she would stand out. Ashe suspected she’d chosen her seat away from the others in an attempt to be discreet, a task her beauty no doubt made impossible under the best of circumstances. Today, in a room peopled by elderly ladies and a middle-aged man, there was no opportunity for obscurity.
Ashe approached and gave his aunts his best bow. ‘Ladies, I am at your service’, but his gaze kept returning to the corner. Her comeliness was not all due to her good looks. It was in the way she held her slender neck, the straightness of her shoulders, both of which said, ‘Notice me, I dare you.’ For all her delicate beauty, she was no shy maiden. He could see it in the jut of her chin and the frank stare of her gaze in spite of her efforts at anonymity.
Leticia swept forwards, white-haired, regal and perhaps more fragile than Ashe remembered. They were all more fragile than he remembered, except for the siren at the window. She’d been watching him since the moment he’d entered the room, no doubt wondering and assessing, just as he was now. She was no one he recognised, but apparently she was important enough to be invited to his homecoming. More importantly, she’d been invited into the household in the aftermath of a significant death.
Ashe was cynical enough in his dealings with the world to be suspect of such an invitation. The aftermath of funerals were private matters for families, a chance for the bereaved to mop up the particulars of the deceased’s life, reorganise and carry on. The weeks after a funeral were intimate times. Strangers were not welcome, although strangers invariably came in the hopes of grabbing a scrap from the table. Lovely, dark-haired females aside, Ashe had a word for those importunis-tic people: carrion.