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How the Rake
Tempted the Lady

Love at first sight can sweep you away into a …

She lost her heart to him the first time they met. He kept falling harder for her whenever their paths crossed. After her uncle secures her engagement to another gentleman, can they find their way back to one another?

Gemma Holbrooke had waited anxiously to enjoy a Season in London and to fall magically in love. When her uncle granted her wish, she dreamed of the beautiful gowns she would wear, the dances around the ballroom floors, and of all the handsome gentlemen who would court her. Before they traveled to London, her uncle hosted a house party, and one guest in particular changed her every aspiration. A handsome lord who avoided her at all costs. His bold stare tempted Gemma to discover the depth of their burning attraction. When her uncle forbade any contact with her true love, Gemma defied the strictures of society. At every opportunity she risked her reputation to be held in in his arms, but too many obstacles stood in their way of happiness. Can Gemma outwit her uncle to secure the groom of her choice?

Barrett Ralston scoffed whenever he heard anyone mention they fell in love at first sight. Such an act never existed. That was until he caught sight of Gemma Holbrooke. A siren disguised as an innocent debutante who lured him closer with every smile. Then everything he ever believed in changed in the blink of a kiss that knocked him to his knees. When her uncle issued a demand to stay clear from his niece, Barrett decided to tempt the beauty into a scandalous affair. At every secret rendezvous, their soft kisses and gentle caresses heated into a passion out of their control. But when Barrett’s secret assignment to recover a stolen coin crossed over into their love affair, it broke their fragile connection. Can Barrett stop the threat from destroying Gemma’s love for him?

Soul mates meeting for the first time. A temptation that cannot be denied. A love like no other. Will Gemma and Barrett allow others to control their destiny? Or will they defy all the odds against them?

How the Rake Tempted the Lady is the third book in Laura A. Barnes’s Matchmaking Madness Series. If you enjoy reading love at first sight romances filled with steamy scenes, then you’ll love Gemma & Barrett’s romantic story full of temptation.

Treat yourself to How the Rake Tempted the Lady today!

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Chapter One

 

“Is he not the most divine?” Gemma Holbrooke sighed to her new friend, Noel Worthington.

       “You must stop drooling over my brother. It is most disturbing to listen to,” teased Noel.

       Gemma turned her head to smirk. “Well, I only speak the truth. Not only divine, but most charming too.”

       “I will accept the next dance from whoever asks just to get away from your infatuation. You made a promise not to speak of Graham this evening,” threatened Noel in a teasing tone.

       Gemma heaved a sigh. “I know. But look at him, he is most dreamy. With those blond locks and his bedroom eyes. They are smokey and filled with hidden secrets. I am only curious …”

       “Akh,” Noel growled, her hands clamping over her ears.

       Gemma laughed. “I promise I will stop this instance. No more.”

       “You promise?” asked Noel.

       “Well, for this evening anyhow.” Gemma winked.

       Noel shook her head at Gemma. It didn’t matter anyway. Gemma held no interest in Graham Worthington, other than she enjoyed flirting with him. He was called Worth by his friends. She found pleasure when gentlemen paid attention to her, and with Worth, she didn’t have to worry about him wanting anything more than a little fun. She had caught Uncle Theo’s frown over their friendship. Not to mention Worth’s brother, Lord Worthington, had warned him away. Evelyn, Gemma’s cousin, had married Lord Worthington, and she told Gemma that Worthington didn’t approve of a match between her and Worth. Still, she enjoyed herself too much to stop.

       “If you must moon over someone, why not him?” With her fan, Noel discreetly indicated the gentleman standing in the ballroom entry.

       Gemma’s gaze followed Noel’s train of thought. Oh, but her friend had no clue how much Gemma mooned over Lord Ralston already. Gemma had made a fool of herself with the gentleman during her uncle’s house party. She had thrown herself at the lord, only for him to rebuff her every time she approached him. The last night of the house party, she had followed Lord Ralston into the gardens. When he realized they were alone, he’d ordered her back inside. However, her determination to tempt Lord Ralston to kiss her had only caused him to quicken his pace and return to the ball to lose himself in the crowd. Gemma had searched everywhere, but she hadn’t been able to find him. During breakfast the next morning, Gemma learned that Lord Ralston had left during the night.

Barrett Ralston caused Gemma’s insides to quiver with longing. Even staring at him now set her on edge.

Gemma’s disappointment had lingered until Graham Worthington came into her life, making it bright again. Even though Worth was a dear, Lord Ralston was a temptation she refused to resist. She wondered if she could convince Worth to help her win Lord Ralston’s favor. She knew Worth wasn’t looking for a relationship. No, he enjoyed his bachelor ways too much to tie himself down. If Worth agreed to help her, then she could fool Uncle Theo into believing her interests lie elsewhere.

Uncle Theo may not like Gemma and Worth’s flirtation, but he insisted Gemma stay away from Lord Ralston. It wasn’t so much of a declaration of Ralston’s unworthiness, but he forbade it. When Uncle Theo forbade anything, it was his final word. Usually, she only had to sweet-talk Uncle Theo, and he relented. But once he issued the word forbidden, there was no argument for debate. His decision stayed final.

“I already do. The man is in my dreams every night while I sleep.” Gemma sighed.

“Then why do you flirt with my brother? Everyone describes your behavior as smitten.”

Gemma twisted her lips. “Because Uncle Theo has forbidden me to even talk to Lord Ralston.”

Noel gasped. “Oh, that is a shame.”

“Why?”

“Because I would not mind listening to you worship over him. He is every girl’s wish.” Noel sighed much like Gemma had.

Gemma didn’t disagree with her friend. Lord Ralston made every innocent maiden’s thoughts border on scandalous. At least her musings did. Even now as she took in his appearance, she dreamed of him wrapping her in his embrace and ravishing her lips. She wanted to run her fingers through Ralston’s dark hair that hung near his collar, stare into his mysterious eyes the color of a grey storm brewing, and listen to his devil-may-care attitude. Every word out of his mouth whispered of indecent temptations. He tried shocking Gemma, but he only made her curious to learn if he spoke the truth of his exploits.

“Are Lord Ralston and Worth friends?” Gemma asked, watching the two gentlemen in a discussion.

Noel shrugged. “I would not know. Graham never brings his friends around. Reese does not approve of the lot and does not allow them anywhere near us girls. Mama approves of Reese’s decision, and Evelyn is just as protective.”

“Mmm, that is a shame. I had hoped to learn more about Lord Ralston.” Gemma’s gaze stayed focused on the two debonair gentlemen.

“Are you going to disobey Colebourne’s demand?” asked Noel.

Gemma turned with a dreamy expression. “Would you if Worthington kept you from the one you love?”

“You love Lord Ralston?” Noel whispered.

“Yes.” Gemma smiled

“Oh, how romantic! Was it love at first sight?”

“Yes.” Gemma sighed, remembering the first time she saw Lord Ralston.

Noel shook her head. “No, I would not follow the rules either. In fact, since this is all in the name of love, I shall help you any way I can.”

Gemma clutched Noel’s hands. “You would do that for me?”

Noel nodded, smiling. “Yes.”

Gemma squeezed Noel’s hands in thanks. Gemma had hoped Abigail would have been the one to offer to help her. But Abigail didn’t trust Lord Ralston and agreed with Uncle Theo on staying away from the scoundrel. It didn’t help that her cousin Charlotte agreed as well after sitting next to him at dinner one night during the house party.

Abigail was like a sister to her, even though Abigail’s mother had been Gemma’s mother’s maid. But because both of their mothers died in a tragic accident, they’d grown close like sisters. All because of Uncle Theo. He took Abigail in with Gemma and her cousins when their parents died and treated Abigail as one of them. However, her friend remained stubborn about where her place in society was.

Abigail refused to attend the balls and only accepted the invitations where she presented herself as a companion. It was all preposterous. In time, Gemma hoped they could convince her to partake in the season. Gemma’s greatest wish was for them to find their soul mates together. However, she feared Abigail had already found hers. And that gentleman was beyond her reach. Not because of his standing in society, but because his father had decided his betrothal when he was but a small lad in leading strings.

“Gemma?” Noel asked.

“Mmm,” Gemma murmured, lost in thought.

“Does Lord Ralston know of your uncle’s demands?”

“I am not sure. Why?”

Noel’s eyes widened. “Because he is walking towards us, and he has not taken his eyes off of you since he entered the ballroom.”

Gemma glanced up to see Ralston striding toward them, his intentions clear. Once he reached them, any words she might have spoken got stuck in her throat at the storm brewing in his eyes. Ralston being so near affected Gemma so strongly that she didn’t hear what he asked. Noel nudged her elbow, her head tilting toward Ralston, who stood waiting for Gemma’s answer.

“Yes,” she squeaked.

“Excellent.” He held out his hand for Gemma to place her gloved palm in his and led her to the dance floor.

Gemma glanced over her shoulder at Noel, who winked in approval. In her bewilderment, she’d promised herself to dance with Lord Ralston. Her eyes scanned the ballroom to see if her uncle noticed her dance partner. Gemma didn’t find Uncle Theo in the crowd, but she spotted her chaperone, Aunt Susanna. However, her aunt was talking in a circle of friends and paid Gemma no attention. Or so she thought.

Gemma tried to relax, but Ralston’s very presence made her nerves flutter uncontrollably. Did he notice her fingers tremble? With each turn, he let his touch linger a bit longer. Soon, he whispered near her ear. She couldn’t recall what he said. His undivided attention caused her to lose herself in the moment. Ralston probably thought her an odd debutante. However, Gemma held no control over her reactions, no matter how hard she tried to focus. She was hopeless. Perhaps even a bit mad, like Lucas always called her uncle.

Was her reaction to Lord Ralston a sign of madness? If so, it was a madness full of desire.

~~~~~

Barrett Ralston stood inside the entryway to the ballroom, searching for his prey. Once he located her, he stood and took in her beauty. She may have looked like all the other debutantes circling the ball, but the unique aura surrounding her cast a glow.

He shook his head at his poetic gibberish. Aura. Glow. Next, he would quote renditions of Byron on his knee while staring adoringly into her eyes. He needed to get himself together before approaching Gemma Holbrooke.

       He must follow through with the Duke of Colebourne’s order for this evening. The duke held all his vowels. If he wanted them to disappear, then he must do the duke’s bidding. In return, the duke promised not to tell Ralston’s father of his gambling debts. While he usually won, he had been on a losing streak lately, stacking up substantial debt wherever he played. The only reason Ralston didn’t want his father aware of his gambling was because his father would question the reason behind his philandering ways.

       And that was a secret he needed to keep hidden for a while longer.

       Colebourne thought he held all the power by forcing Ralston to do his bidding. When, in fact, Colebourne gave him the perfect opportunity for stolen moments with a rare beauty. Colebourne had dragged him away from London when he’d been on a winning streak to work off his debt to attend a house party. Ralston had been furious. It hadn’t been just any house party, but one where Colebourne picked each gentleman specifically for one of his wards.

       Once the party began in full swing, Ralston set his eyes on Gemma, but the duke informed him that Gemma wasn’t for the likes of him. No, he had another gentleman in mind for her. However, that bloke had been unable to attend. Colebourne’s only command was to keep Gemma occupied from the other gentlemen so they wouldn’t press their courtships on his niece.

       Ralston couldn’t afford to anger the duke this early in the game. He held all the power. So Ralston had agreed to the duke’s orders, biding his time until he got Gemma alone. With a little luck, he could steal her away from prying eyes, if only for a brief spell.

       He’d been a fool the one time she’d been within his grasp. She had followed him into the dark garden, and he pretended indifference. Then he fled like a coward before dawn. Her uncle had watched her too closely and would have known if Ralston stole a kiss or two. No, his role was to keep up the pretense of a scoundrel chasing every skirt in sight. As long as it wasn’t Gemma.

       Gemma Holbrooke.

       The moment he caught his first glance, he had fallen victim to love. Love at first sight was foolish…. but was it really? How else could he explain the flood of emotions that consumed him whenever he saw her? Let alone when he was in the same company with her. She had been a permanent fixture in his dreams since the house party. He remembered her greeting the guests with her cousins and her sparkling personality enveloping the room. Whenever he saw her, she had a smile on her face, and he pretended to act bored with her company, when the only emotion coursing through his veins was the thrill of desire.

       “Ralston?” Graham Worthington drew his attention away from his obsession, but only for a brief second.

“Worth.”

       “Who has caught your attention?” Worth followed Ralston’s gaze.

       “Only looking for my next dance partner. I see Gemma Holbrooke. I should dance with her since I met her at Colebourne’s house party. It would only be polite. Or perhaps I shall ask for an introduction to the beauty at her side.”

       “You will stay clear of that beauty,” Worth growled.

       “Mmm, chosen her for yourself, have you?” Ralston cocked his eyebrow.

       Worth gritted through his teeth. “She is my sister and too pure for the likes of you.”

       A common theme amongst the fathers and brothers of the ton concerning Ralston. He’d built himself a reputation of a scoundrel of the highest honor. Between his whoring, gambling, drinking, and no respect for society, he was the bad seed of the ton.

       Yet, his wildness attracted him to keep receiving invitations to every event. He was also the Duke of Theron’s heir, a marquess in his own right. Not a single peer would snub the heir of a duke.

       Ralston chuckled. “I understand. If she were my sister, I would deliver you the same warning. Thankfully, they are still in the nursery.”

       Worth laughed. “That is what I like about you, Ralston. Your sense of humor and your ability to act nonchalant. I can never tell if you mean what you say.”

       Ralston raised an eyebrow. “Then I guess I have achieved my actual goal. Always keep them wondering.”

       “Have you taken care of the matter we discussed a few days ago?”

       Ralston glanced around to see if anyone was listening. “Yes, the target has taken the bait.”

       “Excellent. I shall contact you soon for an update.”

       Ralston nodded. “I guess I will claim the lovely Gemma for the next dance.”

       “Be careful of that one,” Worth warned with a chuckle.

       “Why?” Ralston broke his perusal of the lovely blonde to question Worth on his implication.

       “She is a lively one and will break your heart with just a smile. Oh, but I forget, you have no heart,” Worth joked, slapping Ralston on the back.

       It might have been a jest. However, the whole ton whispered of his coldness discard of mistresses, his callous disregard of ruining innocents, and the shameful way he seduced ladies in front of their husbands.

       If only Gemma hadn’t already stolen his heart. A fact Ralston needed to keep hidden.

       He needed to leave Worth’s company before he struck the bloke. He didn’t like knowing Worth and Gemma flirted with each other. His friend held the same reputation of warming many bedsheets across London.

       Ralston shrugged before strolling away to his prey. Worth’s sister was whispering to Gemma, causing a warm blush to spread across her cheeks before she lifted her gaze to him. Her hazel eyes grew larger with every step he took. She’d kept her hair down this evening with clasps decorated in tiny pearls behind her ears, and a single pearl on a chain adorned her neck. Her blond hair shone, but the glow from the candlelight hinted at a light reddish tint. Her yellow gown reminded him of a buttercup, simple but elegant.

       “May I have this dance?” Ralston stood waiting for his answer to the dance the musicians were preparing for.

Gemma didn’t answer him and appeared lost in thought. As her friend tried to get her attention, Ralston’s spirits sank. She didn’t wish to dance with him after all. He had been confident of her answering yes. Even Colebourne had insisted Gemma would dance with him if he asked. Colebourne wanted who he chose for a groom to see that one of the ton’s rakehells had his sight set on Gemma for his next conquest. Colebourne hoped the gentleman would rescue Gemma from Ralston’s clutches.

When Gemma laid her hand in his, he breathed a sigh of relief. Her hand trembled in his. At every chance, he let his fingers caress her longer. He never meant to seduce her during this dance. But Worth’s comments spurred Ralston to start his seduction of Gemma Holbrooke.

“I wish to steal a kiss from your sweet lips,” he whispered into her ear as he spun her around.

Gemma stumbled, and he caught her closer to him. She raised her startled gaze to his. He expected a shocked reply to his indecent comment, but to his surprise, her eyes sparked with an unspoken desire. One he needed to explore this instant.

They were near the end of the dance line, and the crowd had grown near them. No one would notice if they slipped out the doors that led to the balcony. He glanced around the ballroom, searching for Colebourne and Lady Forrester, Gemma’s chaperone.

“They are not watching,” Gemma whispered.

At her soft words, Ralston lost his concern for Gemma’s reputation. The temptation to steal a kiss overruled his common sense. They may not have their eyes upon them, but Ralston knew what they risked if Colebourne discovered their indiscretion. However, Gemma removed any of the doubts he harbored when she tugged on his hand.

This was madness, but he no longer cared. They could lock him away. If he stole one moment with Gemma, it would be worth it.

Ralston needed no other encouragement. He led them out onto the dark balcony and around to a display of plants, the perfect hiding spot. Shame overcame Ralston at having knowledge of all the secret hiding places at every home in London, where he had stolen many widows, debutantes, and married women away for secret trysts.

However, this evening was different. Or so he kept telling himself. This tryst was different. Gemma was different. How he felt toward Gemma and the time they spent together meant more to him.

Any other time, his confidence controlled his actions. He dominated their senses and seduced them with whispered words and stolen kisses, promising them more if they allowed him a few favors to tide him over. Now, his confidence fled, and he was a bundle of nerves. He feared he would scare her away with his forwardness. Ralston lost all sense of who he was when he stood in Gemma’s presence.

       Once he secured a hiding spot, Ralston drew Gemma into his embrace. He swung her around, pressing her back against the stone wall. He lowered his head and paused, their lips but a breath apart, and waited.

       Gemma’s lips trembled, and her tongue darted out to wet her lips. He growled. His thumb traced the path of her tongue, pulling a moan from between her lips. He leaned down and brushed his lips once, twice against hers, before his mouth devoured the sweet nectar of temptation. Gemma opened at his demand, and he left her with no mercy.

       “You taste so exquisite,” Ralston moaned in between kisses.

       Gemma clung to Ralston, holding on for dear life. The power of his kisses drugged her senses, leaving her floating. He pushed his body into hers, and the brick scraped against her back. However, she felt no pain but only the sheer pleasure of heaven.

       Ralston probably thought her an innocent miss since she never moved, but she was powerless to the sensation. The first gentle brush of his mouth stunned her. Then he ravished her, and Gemma’s need awakened her to return his kisses with her own. To leave the same mark on Ralston that he left on her.

       She pressed her chest against his, her hands diving into his hair. Her fingers gripped the soft waves, holding him to her. When Ralston’s tongue stroked against hers, Gemma gave as good as she got. With each bold touch, Ralston moaned his pleasure along with her sighs. Each time they pulled away to draw a breath, an ache consumed her until he dominated her with more kisses. Each one was more relentless than the last.

       Gemma expected a rake as experienced as Ralston to try more than sensuous kisses. His hands stayed firmly wrapped around her, keeping her close to him. Was she too innocent for him? She didn’t hold a candle to his other conquests. However, their kisses and the proof of his desire pressing into her middle spoke otherwise.

       Why did he attempt nothing more?

       Her kisses drove Ralston to the brink of madness. He never wanted to stop. However, he must. If he didn’t return Gemma to the ballroom before the dance was over, they risked getting caught. Then she wouldn’t get to enjoy the season because of him. He may be a selfish bastard, but he refused to be Gemma’s downfall. She wasn’t his yet. Until she was, he refused to allow scandal to touch her.

       Her soft lips melted under his, and her purrs of satisfaction echoed in his ears. He ached to take her. Oh, how much he desired to lift her dress around her hips and plow into her. But he refused to slake his urges as he had on other ladies in the past. No. Their first time making love would only leave them with enchanted memories. Memories they would fill with a lifetime of finding pleasure with each other.

       And no duke would stand between them.

       With much reluctance, he pulled away and reached up to pull her hands from his hair. When her eyes clouded with the loss and her mouth formed into a pout, Ralston growled his own disappointment. The fool that he was, he stole one more kiss before stepping away. He didn’t stray too far, only far enough so they could no longer touch. He needed to keep his sanity. This was unfamiliar terrain he ventured in, so out of the ordinary from his usual trysts. However, he refused to label this as a tryst. No, it was a stolen moment with a lady who held his heart in the palm of her hand. She may not realize the power she held, but Ralston gifted her with a trust he’d never held for another.

       “I … ahh … that is …” Ralston stumbled out an apology.

       “Shh,” Gemma whispered, stopping him.

       “I need to—”

       “No, please don’t.” Gemma’s voice trembled.

       Ralston raked his hand through his hair in frustration. He wanted to express himself, but he turned into a bumbling fool who couldn’t voice his emotions. If he were whispering words of seduction, it would be another story.

       Gemma stood before him on the verge of tears, misunderstanding their time spent alone. He wanted to reassure her the kisses were special. Instead, she probably thought what everyone else thought of him.

Why would Gemma be any different? He should have slacked his desires with seduction. After a few more caresses, Gemma Holbrooke would have spread her thighs like all the other conquests he had seduced in darkened corners. Except she was of a different class. Ralston only had himself to blame for tainting their first kiss with reminders from his past.

       Before he could react, Gemma slipped under his arm and left him hidden behind the plants. He watched her run across the balcony and didn’t follow. It was for the best. If he followed, he would have to explain himself. And he had no explanation, other than the dire need to hold her in his arms with her mouth beneath his. He watched her stop before she reached the light coming from the balcony doors. She wiped the tears from her eyes and gathered herself.

       “Turn around,” Ralston begged. “Please turn.”

       However, Gemma didn’t hear his whispered pleas or else she refused to acknowledge them. Ralston would never know. Whatever he had hoped to achieve burned to ashes at his feet. He’d blown any opportunity he had with her when he didn’t reassure her how much the kiss meant to him. He wanted to follow Gemma to see her reaction, but he needed to leave for his own protection.

Because when, not if, the duke learned of his niece sneaking away from the dance with him, Ralston didn’t want to be anywhere near Colebourne’s wrath. Then the duke would rescind his offer for Ralston to work off his debt. The duke would demand payment. A substantial amount of blunt that Ralston didn’t have but soon would.

~~~~~

Gemma lay in bed, trying to fall asleep but to no avail. Barrett Ralston and his devouring kisses consumed her thoughts. The images of them kissing flashed more vividly when she closed her eyes. Her lips still tingled from where he’d traced them with his thumb, and later with his mouth. Her body burned from pressing against him. His onslaught of kisses awakened Gemma from a simple infatuation to a woman on the brink of having her every desire fulfilled. She lay aching for him. She didn’t understand her body’s needs, but Ralston would know how to ease her quivering flesh.

       Does he ache for me the same? Gemma wondered.

Gemma kept trying to answer the question since he’d pulled away from their kisses. The distance he put between them had been more than obvious. When he tried to apologize, Gemma had stopped him. She hadn’t wanted the stolen moment ruined with regrets. She held none, and she prayed Ralston didn’t either.

       Gemma had paused near the entrance to the ballroom. She wanted to turn around to see if he followed. When the air remained still behind her, she knew he hadn’t. However, their connection never severed. Gemma felt Ralston watching her, and with that, her smile grew wide, and she strolled inside the ballroom with an innocent look of a debutante who only stepped outside for a brief spell. The dance ended, and she got caught up in the crowd, making her explanation for being alone more believable. She’d explained to Aunt Susanna that she got separated from her dance partner in the crowd. Gemma blathered on about how she hoped she didn’t commit a faux pas and offend her dance partner. Her chaperone assured her it was a regular occurrence whenever a ball was a success.

       Gemma held no guilt for her lies. To do so would mean she regretted sneaking away with Ralston. She would do so again if an opportunity presented itself. Perhaps she could hold his interest for longer than a few kisses…

       Gemma then realized what she needed to capture Ralston’s undivided attention. She needed to make herself irresistible to him. What better way than to flirt with him whenever their paths crossed.

       Gemma smiled at her plan, closed her eyes, and let the memory of Ralston’s kisses lead her into dreamland.