Excerpt from Scoundrel for Hire

      
     Peering out his coach window, Rafe gazed in awe at the Nicholses' mansion. He'd taken great care to arrive last at the party.
     Timing was everything in the theater.
     Giving the roof a whack with his walking stick, a shiny new acquisition that amused him to no end, he displayed the bored manner of a British blue blood. His demeanor was no small feat, considering the result of his whack. The lurching vehicle nearly flung him from his seat. Jimmy, God love him, had finally located the brakes.
     Rafe heard a thump and the eager pounding of boots. A heartbeat later, his driver, an impossibly gullible youth whose vocabulary was roughly limited to exclamations, flung open the door.
     "Man alive, your worship sir," Jimmy panted, his ruddy cheeks bulging above the collar that he, in his less auspicious job as a cantaloupe picker, was unaccustomed to wearing. "That house sure is some pumpkins!"
     Rafe gazed fondly at the youth. Jimmy was decked out in a red livery that had cost Rafe—or rather, Silver—at least twice as much as every item of clothing Jimmy had ever owned. Jimmy was another new "acquisition" that amused Rafe to no end, and he couldn't wait to spring the lad on Little Miss High Society.
     "That house?" Rafe gestured with a limp hand. "'Some pumpkins,' you say?" He sniffed. "Lud, my boy. You have yet to see my kennels."
     Jimmy's eyes bugged out, making him look like a guppy with spikey blonde hair. "Golly!"
     Rafe hid his smile. Tossing back his cape, he stepped briskly up the cobbled walk. When he'd agreed to seduce the golddigger engaged to Silver's father, he'd assumed that Celestia Cooper was a dewy-eyed Jezebel. Well, yesterday, he'd learned the woman was old enough to be his mother! He'd been so furious (disappointed, too), that he'd had half a mind to let Silver sweat out her father's engagement. Unfortunately, Rafe's finances wouldn't permit such rash behavior.
     Of course, he wasn't about to let Silver know that. No, his cohort-in-crime had a lesson to learn about bamboozling Raphael Jones. He'd thought long and hard about his options, and he'd finally decided on the only sensible alternative: revenge. Hiring Jimmy had been integral to Rafe's plan. Spending a fortune on Silver's credit had also been part of his mischief. But best of all...
     Rafe snickered to himself.
     Best of all were the character improvements he'd made in the role that Silver had scripted for him.
     Rapping his cane on the glass-and-mahogany door, Rafe envisioned the look on his coconspirator's face when he unveiled the new Lord Chumley. To his surprise, a pine tree of a manservant in impeccable swallowtails appeared at the entrance.
     "Hullo, my good man," Rafe said in his best British fop's voice. "Do step aside and announce that the Duke of Chumley has arrived."
     The manservant arched an eyebrow. One sweeping, flesh-scoring glance later, he'd masterfully conveyed his opinion of Rafe. "The Duke of Chumley, you say?" the man repeated in an unmistakably British accent.
     Damn Silver anyway. She neglected to tell me she had an English butler!
     "That's correct." Rafe vowed to make Silver the Shyster pay double—no, triple—for this latest breach of contract. "Run along and fetch your mistress."
     "And I suggest that you run along before I have you thrown into the gutter."
     A heartbeat later, the door slammed, and Rafe was left staring at his reflection in the quivering opaque glass.
     Silver, my love, that's another one I owe you.
     For her part, Silver nearly dropped a tray of champagne glasses when she heard Rafe's voice—and her butler's threat. Heedless of the proprieties for once, she made a beeline for the door and wrenched it open. She almost sobbed with relief to see Rafe still standing on the stoop.
     "My Lord Chumley, I am so sorry!" she greeted, genuinely mortified. "Please do come in. Obviously, there's been a misunderstanding."
     Benson drew himself up to his full six feet, seven inches. "With all due respect, Miss Nichols, this man is an impos—"
     "Benson!" Silver choked, wary of eavesdropping guests. "Lord Chumley is my guest. Kindly apologize."
     The butler's face mottled. With a coldness that would have endeared him only to penguins, Benson inclined his head. "My apologies to... Your Grace," he added disdainfully.
     Silver started. Your Grace? Isn't that a duke's address, rather than an earl's?
     As relieved as Silver was that Rafe had finally arrived as promised, the impression he was making was far from the desired effect. For some unfathomable reason, he'd selected a gold velvet coat and a chartreuse waistcoat. The tawny, muttonchop whiskers he'd pasted to his jaws gave him a comical, rather than sophisticated, air.
     "I say," Rafe drawled, affecting a faint lisp, "what a smashing little cottage you have. All these colored windows and glittery... thingamabobs." He waved his handkerchief at the two thousand dollar crystal-and-sterling chandelier tinkling in the breeze.
     Silver caught her coconspirator's arm and dismissed Benson with a nod. "Come along, my lord. I'll see to your cape."
     "Jolly good." Rafe started to hum, waving his handkerchief to the off-key ditty.
     "Must you be such a trial?" she whispered, dragging him under the staircase. "You're late. Don't tell me you spent all this time at the tailor's, because clearly you did not. Where on earth did you get that waistcoat?"
     Rafe's lips twitched as he lovingly smoothed the brocade. "Rather festive, don't you think?"
     "You don't want to know what I think." She hung his cape on a hook. "Well, you're here now, so nothing can be done—"
     She realized Rafe wasn't listening. He was too busy gawking through his quizzing glass at the statue her love-struck father had commissioned for the alcove. The sterling maiden was supposed to represent Aphrodite. All its shameless, bare-chested glory made Silver blush.
     Rafe, on the other hand, was fairly smirking at the sculpture.
     "Oh, for heaven's sake." She yanked him toward less scandalous vistas. "Will you please pay attention?"
     His lazy golden lashes swept lower, lingering on her own modest décolletage. "I should be delighted."
     Her insides shriveled with embarrassment. Despite the caress in his gaze, it was hard to feel adequate compared with the Greek goddess of love.
     "We have little time to talk." She did her best to assume a businesslike whisper, despite the distraction of his nearness. His heat gusted over her bared shoulders like a sultry summer night. "I trust you have some plan for tonight?"
     "Seduction does require forethought."
     Her toes curled. She couldn't immediately say why. Perhaps it was due to the smoky timbre of his voice.
     "Good. Then I shall distract Papa. Only—" Silver's stomach flipped. Honestly, she thought she'd overcome these annoying pangs of guilt. "Be discreet. Papa does have feelings."
     "Oh, your papa won't feel a thing."
     She eyed him sharply. Was Rafe up to no good again? It was hard to believe he'd suddenly developed compassion for Papa. "I shall expect significant progress from you tonight."
     "My progress, dear Silver," Rafe drawled wickedly, "is the one thing on which you can depend."
     
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