Lady Rosabella's Ruse - By Ann Lethbridge

Chapter One

The weight of tedium hung heavy in the air. After only one hour at Lady Keswick’s Sussex mansion, Garth Evernden, eighth Baron Stanford, was bored. Summer house parties were all the same, deadly dull or wildly hedonistic and utterly predictable.

As he prowled in the wake of his hostess’s butler along a corridor lined with every Greek god known to man, he wondered why he hadn’t gone to Brighton. A fleeting thought of Prinny and his cronies produced a yawn.

Why had he accepted Lady Keswick’s invitation? Ah, yes, now he remembered his purpose. Having delivered Clarissa her congé last month, he needed an occupant for his discreet town house in Blackheath. A woman who would entertain his nights and stay out of his days. This gathering of philanderers and fast widows might provide such a woman, but now he was here, hope seemed elusive.

The butler threw back a pair of French doors. ‘The terrace, my lord, where you will find everyone gathered.’

‘No need to announce me.’

The butler grinned. ‘Hadn’t planned to, my lord. No standing on ceremony at The Grange.’

He’d forgotten Lady Keswick’s refreshing informality. Perhaps his stay wouldn’t be so bad.

A group of five or six men in dark coats and women in pastels hung over the terrace’s grey-stone parapet gazing at the lawn.

‘Look at Fitz go!’ one of the men hooted. Hapton. A slender brown-haired dandy of about forty summers, with a penchant for fast women and outrageous wagers. ‘I’ll wager a pony on him.’

The woman in yellow at his right turned her back on the view and laughed up at Hapton. Mrs Mallow made an enchanting picture with her lovely, if somewhat hard, face framed by luxurious chestnut curls and a lavender parasol. ‘My money is on the gardeners. Fitz is all go at the start, but in my experience, he has no stamina.’

General laughter along the rail met the sally.

Seeing Garth, Mrs Mallow waved. Hapton turned to look, grimaced, then swung back to whatever had their attention on the lawn. Taller than most, Garth peered over Hapton’s shoulder. It was a human wheelbarrow race. Two gentlemen against two brawny young men in homespun. Garth sighed. God, they were childish. He hoped this wasn’t the pinnacle of the entertainment to come.

Having not yet greeted his hostess, he turned away from the view and spotted her seated in a chair on wheels in the shade of a cluster of potted yews. A monstrous red wig battled with the purple of a sarcenet gown cut low enough to reveal an expanse of enormous breasts. Struggling to keep his gaze on her face and not the jiggling mass of flesh, he made his bow. ‘Lady Keswick, your servant.’

‘Lord Stanford. Welcome.’ She offered him a lazy smile, her puffy cheeks swelling to melon-sized proportions and practically obliterating her twinkling faded blue eyes. ‘I hope my staff took proper care of you?’

One hand to his heart, he offered his most charming smile. ‘The accommodations are excellent. I congratulate you on your new home.’

‘Good. Very good.’ She eyed him a little askance. ‘I expected you yesterday.’

‘I had trouble tearing myself away from a prior engagement.’

‘I never heard you had trouble bidding a woman farewell. Who was it this time?’

He raised a brow, let the mockery show on his face. ‘I don’t remember.’

A rich chuckle set her bosom trembling like a blancmange carried by a nervous footman. ‘Cheeky rogue. Now I recall why I invited you. You make me laugh.’

She made him laugh, too. Most of the time. He grinned at her. ‘Is everyone here?’

‘All that’s condescended to come.’

He eyed the women speculatively. From this angle, their pink, yellow and blue-clad bottoms were presented in a row like choice desserts on a plate—they looked delicious. Choosing was always interesting.

Tasting could be a disappointment.

A dog, an overweight pug, waddled from beneath the elderly lady’s skirts and growled at his reflection in Garth’s boots.

‘Hello, old chap.’ Garth bent down and scratched behind the dog’s ears. ‘Who are you?’ The dog stared up at him with bulbous eyes.

‘Digger,’ Lady Keswick said. ‘Come, sir. Lie down.’

The dog swaggered back into hiding.

A movement deeper in the shadows of the potted trees brought Garth to his feet. Another woman was seated behind his hostess, her black attire making her almost invisible.

He disguised a sharp intake of breath as he took in the woman’s face. Pale olive skin and dark, almond-shaped eyes gave her perfectly oval face an exotic mysterious look. The raven-black hair swept back and tightly constrained at her nape