The background: Drake’s Rakes are an informal collection of heirs and aristocrats kept from the battlefield by the needs of their families and their positions. But wars are also fought behind the lines; in drawing rooms and government buildings. And mostly civilian gentlemen can protect their country just as surely by ferreting out traitors. Their stories have begun to be told in Barely a Lady, Never a Gentlleman, and Always a Temptress. But they had lives before this, history which will impact what happens now. This is a short prequel to the story of Pippin Knight and Beau Drummond, who will meet up again in Twice Tempted, coming out in 2013. But, as you can see, their story starts well before then.
By the time Pippin Knight learned that Beau Drummond was a spy, she’d already been in love with him for years. Seven years, to be exact, since the day Beau had saved her from her ill-advised ride on her papa’s best hunter. She had challenged Beau’s brother Henry to a race up Feversham Hill for the prize of bragging rights. Henry had mounted his pony. Pip had jumped bareback atop Champion and set off at a gallop.
She never did admit it, but it had only taken two minutes to realize that she had made a dreadful mistake. Champion had no patience for little girls. And little girls had not the muscles nor command to control a full-size hunter. It had taken some brilliant riding by the then eighteen-year-old Beau, along with a string of curses the likes of which Pip hadn’t even heard in the stables, to rescue her with no more damage than a cut hand from trying to hold onto the bridle.
“You stupid, immature, thoughtless, selfish brat!” he’d bellowed at her the minute they were back on safe ground and Champion corralled. “You should be horsewhipped for endangering such a valuable animal.”
Pip might have demanded to know how Beau could consider a horse more valuable than she, but as he was yelling, he knelt before her and whipped out his handkerchief. With inexpressibly gentle movements, he wrapped her hand, checked her for other injuries and then brought her into his arms when the trembling of shock got the better of her.
“Don’t you ever frighten me like that again,” he demanded, but Pip was sure she heard a rough affection in his voice. She knew that she’d never felt so safe, not even when her papa held her. She could have stood there all day with her ear against Beau’s heart. Instead Henry hadn’t come thundering up whooping with delight at Beau’s circus trick in getting Pip off the horse, and the moment was gone.
She’d been only eight then. Rambunctious, fearless and furious to discover everything she could, a female Magellan, and Henry had been her stalwart companion. They had roamed over the countryside with impunity, because between the two families they had owned most of the countryside. Pippin had been safe and loved and sure that the world wouldn’t change.
The world had changed, of course. It was inevitable. But Pip’s relation to the Drummond brothers had remained the same. Henry was her best friend, and Beau was her love. This Christmas she was bound and determined to make sure he knew.
“What are you doing lurking back here?” her sister Louisa demanded, coming upon her in the corridor back by her father’s office. “Our guests are arriving.”
Pip could hear them, the old manor house echoing with distant chatter and the first strains of music. Pip smoothed the skirt of her emerald velvet dress, wishing her palms weren’t so damp and her heart racing. “I’ll be along in a minute. I just have to…”
Louise, a perfect pocket Venus of a blond with lustrous blue eyes and a Cupid’s bow mouth, tilted her head in observation. “He’s not coming, Pip. I thought mama told you.”
Pippin froze, her heart stuttering badly. “What?”
“Beau Drummond. I know that’s who you’ve dressed up for. He and Alex have gone off somewhere.” Louisa’s smile was rueful. “So you might as well take off that dress. If mama sees you in it, she’ll have a seizure.”
Pip couldn’t manage an answer. Beau not come? No, it was impossible. She’d planned for this moment for seven years. She’d worked so hard to become the woman he could be proud of. She’d prepared tonight as if she were dressing for her wedding, sewing her own dress with the tiniest stitches she’d ever set, the velvet bought with her own pin money, the design from the latest edition of the Ladies Journal. Except for the bodice. That she’d lowered just a bit. But she had breasts now. She needed Beau to realize that.
But Beau wasn’t coming.
It wasn’t in Louisa to be actively cruel, so she gave Pip a hug. “I don’t know what you see in him anyway. He’s a dark as a gypsy and skinny as a wharf rat.”
Not skinny. Lean. And yes, he was dark, as if left in his blond family’s nest by a passing magpie. Henry looked like a Viking, all broad shoulders and bluff, hearty humor. Beau was darker, deeper, the still surface of more perilous water.
And he’d been gentle and kind to a scrubby brat.
But he wasn’t coming.
“How could Alex go off somewhere?” Pip demanded, now pleating the skirt she’d just smoothed. “He was to light the Yule log.”
The heir of Feversham Manor was always given that privilege.
“I have no idea,” Louisa said, much less concerned than Pip thought she should be. Linking arms with Pip, she turned her toward the front of the house. “Now then,” she said. “I think we need to sneak up the back way so nobody sees that neckline.”
Pippin pulled out of her sister’s hold. “In a minute.” She shook her head, the disappointment too big for words. Too big for etiquette, since disappointment bred anger. Pip was afraid hers would spill out at the first inconsiderate question.
So, Pippin, looking for Beau Drummond? Did he ever forgive you for painting his horse blue? Didn’t he snub you at church last Sunday?
She couldn’t bear it. Without another word, she turned and ran.
She made straight toward her father’s study. She often went there when she needed to think or just be alone. There was something about being wrapped in the scent of cigars and vetiver cologne that soothed her. Something about settling into that deep nest of books that righted her. History and adventure waited along those walls, exotic names graced the great globe that took up position of honor by the window. She would escape there for a bit to nurse her wounds.
So Beau wasn’t coming. It was his loss. He could have seen how beautiful she…no. Not beautiful. She had to be honest. She was passably pretty. Cute, with an upturned nose and Irish skin from some ancestor or another and rather unremarkable brown hair. Elfin, another word she loathed. She was all of those.
But now she was an elf with breasts. And Beau wouldn’t know.
It was as if she’d called him. She wasn’t really paying attention as she threw open the study door. She just hoped for a few minutes alone, a curl-up on one of papa’s deep wingback chairs by the fire. Instead, she found herself frozen there on the threshhold, her hand still out as if she could retrieve the doorknob she’d just pushed, her attention caught by the lean body bent over her father’s desk rifling through the drawers.
“Beau?” was all she could think to say.
As if she could mistake him for anybody else.
He jumped up as if he’d just scalded his hand. Pippin noticed the strangest things, all at once. That he wasn’t in formal attire. That he was pale and perspiring. That he seemed to be favoring his right arm. That even strained and wary, he still looked more beautiful to her than any other person in the world.
“What are you doing here?” he accused, his voice unaccountably harsh.
She wanted to laugh, although she didn’t know why. “Oh, no,” she said with a tight smile. “I’m not the one in the wrong place. What are you doing here?”
Immediately he stepped away from the desk. As ever, his movements were sleek and fluid, as if he walked on the balls of his feet. A predator’s gate, Pip thought, and fought an odd shiver. He was coming closer; she didn’t even have to look to know. She could feel his approach in her chest, her belly, the fine hairs along her arms. Even her breasts, so recently appeared, felt suddenly heavy and taut. It was as if a current flowed through him that only she felt, and it set her body to humming in the oddest way. Not frightening. Well, a little frightening, the way anything unfamiliar was. But exhilarating, agitating, unsettling.
“You’re all dressed up tonight, Pip,” he said, letting his gaze slowly travel down her body. “Does your mother know you have that dress?”
“What does it matter to you?” she asked. “And why are you going through my papa’s things? Don’t think you can distract me with compliments.”
Another step. Two. Even her lungs were beginning to feel odd, as if he was crowding out the very air.
“But I didn’t compliment you yet,” he said. “Would you like me to?”
“Only if you mean it.” She could only manage a whisper; she wondered if he could even hear it over her heart. She barely could. He stopped right in front of her, his Hessians bumping up against her satin dancing slippers, his body so close she swore she could feel it brushing against her poor, tender breasts. She was wiping her hands on her skirts again, trying to anchor herself. Beau smiled, and she thought she’d simply soar up and out the window.
“The color of your dress exactly matches your eyes,” he whispered. “They’re lovely.”
He lifted a hand to brush a loose tendril of hair behind her ear and let it trace the contour of her jaw, her throat, her shoulder. Chills cascaded from his fingertips, until she was trembling with them. She’d never had anything like this happen before. She didn’t know what to do with it; she didn’t know if her body could tolerate it. It felt as if she was flying apart.
“I think I’ve been waiting for you to grow up, Pip,” he murmured.
She licked her suddenly dry lips. His eyes grew impossibly dark as he watched. I’ve been waiting too, she wanted to say. She couldn’t force any air past a suddenly constricted throat.
“Have you been kissed yet?” he asked, bending his head towards hers. “A proper kiss, now. Not a stolen peck out behind the barn.”
She couldn’t move, caught in his predator’s gaze. “I’ve never been pecked behind a barn in my life.”
That couldn’t be her voice; it was too high and breathy. But if he didn’t kiss her soon, she would die. She was sure of it.
His smile grew, as if she’d given him wonderful news. He cupped the back of her head with his hands and lifted her face to him. And then, as if he knew she’d waited her whole life for it, he kissed her. A brush of his lips against hers, a nibble, a long, sweet savoring that took the strength right out of her knees. She felt her eyes close. She knew she’d reached up to clutch his lapels, but it felt as if she knew it from a distance, as if the only reality was the place where their lips were joined, where he dipped and tasted and molded her mouth with his own, with his teeth, with the fleeting torment of his tongue.
Pip lifted up, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back, pouring every bit of young devotion into her gift, every late night dream and early morning fantasy. Every unspoken yearning and shared moment. She thought for a moment that she might be happy to die right then, with her body alight and her brain spinning. She thought….
“Beau, really,” a bored voice intruded. “Can’t you pass up any mistletoe?”
Pip jumped as if she’d been shot. Beau pulled back more slowly, that same satisfied smile still on his lips. Pip’s brother Alex strode past them and into the study, shaking his head. “Go change your dress, Pip,” he commanded. “You look like a Covent Garden familiar.”
Flushing angrily, Pippin looked up to Beau, hoping for his defense. He was grinning over at Alex as if the two of them shared some unrepeatable memory. “I consider it gift wrapping on Pip’s present to me.”
“It’s the only present you’ll get from her, my friend,” Alex retorted.
“Don’t you think that’s for me to say?” Pip asked.
Neither of them so much as looked at her.
“Not when you have the questionable sense to wear that outfit to a winter ball,” Alex all but growled as he leafed through some papers on the desk. “Now, go along before one of those old tabbies out there catches you. Or worse, mama.”
Pip gave Beau one last chance to come to her defense. He seemed to have forgotten her. “Did you bring my winnings, old man?”
“Yes, damn you.”
Pip felt her stomach curdle. “That’s why you two couldn’t come to the ball? Because of a wager?”
“A wager he lost,” Alex said. “Costing him his new stallion, I’m proud to say.”
She couldn’t stay to hear any more. Gathering her skirts, she turned and swept from the room.
For some reason, when she reached the end of the corridor, she paused and tiptoed back. Something wasn’t right, and she had been too distracted to notice what.
“You found the lists?” Alex was asking, his voice carefully quiet.
“Just where you said they’d be. Why did you show up? I have it all in hand.”
“Because I heard you’d run afoul of a traitor. Thought you might need an escort home.”
Pippin wasn’t breathing. She couldn’t quite take in the enormity of what she was hearing.
“My thanks,” Beau said, and suddenly his voice was raw and tired. “If you’ll help me, we can get this lot copied and back on that desk at Oxford by the time our traitor comes back.”
“You’re sure you won’t be distracted again,” Alex said. “By the mistletoe.”
Beau chuckled. “Sorry if I offended your tender sensibilities. It was the only thing I could think of that would distract her. Your little sister is tenacious.”
Alex chuckled back. “Well, don’t fall into a habit of it. You don’t want to be caught out at it. Parson’s mousetrap is an awfully stiff sentence for a bit of espionage.”
Again, she waited. Again, she held her breath, ashamed that of the revelations she was hearing, the one she wanted was Beau’s defense of her to her brother.
Not with Pippin it wouldn’t be. I would marry her in a minute. Didn’t you see what that kiss meant?
But of course he didn’t say it. He said, “Not me, lad. I know better than to get caught.”
Her body still humming, Pippin turned away. She should have known better. Her first kiss had been a diversionary tactic.. It was the most shattering experience of her life, and by the time he reached his horse, Beau would already have forgotten it.
Her hand to her chest, where she swore her heart had cracked into pieces, Pippin finally went upstairs to change. There was no more reason to show off.