Authors: Tiffany Green
The Wild Rose Presswww.thewildrosepress.com
Copyright ©2009 by Tiffany Green
First published in 2010NOTICE: This work is copyrighted. It is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, including without limit email, floppy disk, file transfer, paper print out, or any other method constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment.CONTENTS
Praise for INNOCENCE LOST
A word about the author...
Thank you for purchasing
Other suspense-filled Roses to enjoy* * * *
He lowered his hands and took a step back.
And as he turned and started to move away, Megan parted her lips. “Nicholas,” she groaned softly, torn at the thought of his leaving.
He halted, his shoulders tensing. Then he slowly swiveled around.
She wet her dry lips, realizing he was not going to return to her. She would have to go to him. He was leaving the decision solely up to her. Expelling a shaky breath, she took a step forward. Hope sparked in his eyes. And that was her undoing. With a squeak, she flew into his arms. “Oh, Nicholas,” she sighed, feeling him shudder. Then she lifted her head. “Kiss me,” she insisted, raising her hands to thread her fingers through his cool, soft hair.
He closed his eyes and wagged his head from side to side, as though fighting some inward war. His jaw tightened, and Megan knew he was going to refuse her. Then he opened his eyes, eyes aflame with a fierce emotion she couldn't identify. And instead of pushing her away, he lowered his head and pressed his lips to hers.
She could not believe what she was doing. But somehow, being nestled in this man's arms, having his lips pressed against hers, felt right. With some inner certainty she new she belonged to Nicholas. Even as a child she knew. She had always belonged to Nicholas.
Then an irate voice from the doorway startled her, making her gasp.
"Get your bloody hands off of my sister."Praise for INNOCENCE LOST
"The relationship between main characters Megan and Nicholas swings between tempestuous and tender, and their love scenes couldn't be hotter. With a splendid blend of romance, adventure, and drama this romance novel must be in the hands and on the shelves of the most discriminating romance reader."
~Camille Cline, former Tor/Forge editor
[Back to Table of Contents]Innocence LostbyTiffany Green
[Back to Table of Contents]
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
COPYRIGHT (C) 2009 by Tiffany Green
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected]
Cover Art byNicola Martinez
The Wild Rose Press
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Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com
First English Tea Rose Edition, 2009
PRINT ISBN 1-60154-623-8
Published in the United States of America
[Back to Table of Contents]DedicationTo Father. I couldn't have done it without you.
[Back to Table of Contents]PROLOGUE
Claremont Estate, England
November 21, 1813
On silent feet, drunk with giddiness, Lady Megan Westland padded across the room while the candle's flame danced from her candlestick. The thought of seeing him again shot strange lightning bolts up and down her body. Anticipation grew with each step. Her knees trembled. Thank goodness Julian wasn't here to see her. Her brother would box her ears.
She halted a foot away from him and lifted the candle. Golden light poured over his face. She found him wearing the devil's own grin with his light-brown hair spilling past his collar—somewhat disheveled—and he looked every bit the rogue his mother claimed he was.
With a pounding heart, Megan took a small step forward. Her eyes swept over him and heat flooded her cheeks. “Hello, Your Grace.” She glanced back up. My God! He was too handsome. “You're looking well today.” She paused and ran her tongue over dry lips, wondering how his mouth would feel against hers. Her breath caught. A girl of ten and three shouldn't think such thoughts, she knew, but she didn't care. She would do anything,anything, for a kiss from this man. This beautiful man. Why, she would even part with her beloved new pony, Aramis.
Her thoughts returned to why he rarely visited Claremont. Megan knew her brother's presence seven short miles away had kept His Grace in London. “I wish you and Julian didn't hate each other so—” Megan halted when a noise sounded behind her. She spun around, aghast to find the door creeping open and light inching across the dark parquet floor, revealing the other portraits within the gallery. In a rush, she blew out her candle and darted behind the curtains covering the windows to her right.
Clamping her bottom lip between her teeth, trying to ignore the smoke rising from the candlewick, Megan strained to hear over the pulse hammering in her ears.
"What are you doing, Moll?"
"I thought I heard someone, Ruth."
Megan held her breath.
"Heard someone? In here?” Ruth chuckled. “Not unless these portraits can talk, you didn't. Come on, we don't have time for such nonsense. We've got work to do."
"I know I heard—” The door closed, muffling the last of the maid's sentence.
Megan released her constricted breath and crept out from behind the damask fabric. Tiptoeing toward the door, she gave in to one last glimpse of him. Her steps faltered. A stream of pale November light had escaped the curtains she'd disturbed and illuminated his portrait.
"Good bye, my love,” she whispered to his motionless face, then hurried from the room, hoping her mother and the dowager duchess hadn't been concerned with the length of her absence.
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 1
Claremont Estate, England
March 3, 1818
With a twinge of guilt, Lady Megan pulled on the riding breeches. She had taken the poor stable lad's pants.Again.But she'd had no choice. Her maid, Lucy, had found the pair she'd hidden in an old trunk in her dressing room, and there hadn't been time to bribe someone into purchasing another pair for her.
Megan loved to ride above all else. Oh, she knew it was quite unconventional for a duke's daughter to ride astride wearing breeches. According to her parents, society would think her mad. A raving loon ready for room and board at the asylum. But the exhilaration of racing across the meadow in the warm sun after a long winter was pure heaven.
After she'd stuffed the large shirt into the borrowed pants, Megan pinned a wool cap over the chignon Lucy had constructed earlier. She had no wish to have anyone notice her long black hair and report those findings to her father. Megan shivered. Father would be none too pleased.
Reaching for her horse, Aramis, Megan halted when a woeful nicker reached her ears. She turned to the last stall. “What is it, Titan?"
Her brother's horse whinnied softly. She could swear the big brute was begging her. “All right.” She laughed, opening the stall. “I shall take you."
Titan danced around as she located the saddle. “It's a terrible shame Julian doesn't come home and ride you more often.” The horse nodded his agreement.
With a chuckle, she tightened the leather strap and scrambled into the saddle. After she patted the sleek, black neck, they flew from the stables toward the pink and gold sky, ready for an adventure.
He leaned against a tree and watched her race away. She was wearing those deplorable clothes again. When she became his wife, he would make damn certain that never happened. His ring glistened as he opened his snuffbox and took a pinch. Why Lady Megan wanted to dress in breeches and ride astride a horse instead of wearing the finest silks, he would never know. She could damn well afford thousands of the finest gowns.
The man reached for his handkerchief, his hand brushing against the note he would deliver. The first part of his plan was about to begin. The plan that would solve all his problems. The plan that would make him rich and make Megan his wife.
Birds squawked overhead, then flew away. He gave the enormous estate of Kenbrook one last frown, then turned and walked further into the woods.
"Your Grace, it is urgent I speak with you,” Higgins insisted, his words muted by the thick oak door.
Nicholas frowned and cracked open an eye. His bed curtains hadn't even been tied back. “What time is it?” he croaked, his voice rusty with sleep.
"Almost seven o'clock, Your Grace."
"'S too bloody early. Go away.” He turned onto his side. Perhaps if he went right back to sleep, his dream would pick up where it had left—
"It's your new stallion, Your Grace. It is missing."
Nicholas popped open his eyes. “Missing?” He lifted his head. Throwing back the coverlet, he rose from the bed and swore when his feet connected with the cold floor. When he reached the door, he swung it open. “What in the bloody hell do you mean my new stallion is missing?” He'd had great pleasure in beating Huntington to the purchase, and now it was gone?
"My apologies, Your Grace.” Higgins made a small bow. “The groom found the stall unlatched, and the horse gone just a few minutes ago. He has already assembled some men for the search."
"I don't believe this.” It had taken Nicholas months to locate the animal and a great deal of blunt to secure it. And now some thief had ventured onto his estate and taken it right out from under him. His mood darkened. His mother was in residence. In fact, she resided here most of the time. If thieves had set their sights on the estate, she could be harmed. He turned toward his dressing room. “Summon my valet and prepare me a horse. I am going to find the stallion and catch this thief.” And the bloody scoundrel would wish he had never stepped one foot on Claremont.
An hour later, Nicholas halted his horse within a copse of trees several feet from the stream's bank and glanced around. Damnation! He'd lost the trail. The horse must have gone into the stream.
The sound of galloping hooves caught his attention. A black horse raced by, kicking up small clods of mud. A young lad, he deduced, espying the rider's shabby breeches and boots, was crouched over the horse's withers.
The bloody scoundrel was making away with his missing stallion!
Fortunately, the thief was speeding toward the main road. Nicholas knew he could overtake him by cutting through the woods.
Without further consideration, he flanked his horse.
Racing along the path, Megan watched the forest blur into streaks of brown, grey and green. The rising sun expunged the late winter air of its frosty bite and she closed her eyes, inhaling the spicy melange of pine, horseflesh, and rich, damp earth.
Something darted into their path. Titan came to an unsettling halt and reared up. Her eyes flew open and she groped for something to hold on to, but she toppled head over bum from the saddle, and landed facedown in a puddle of cold, sticky sludge.
Stunned, she lifted her head and forced air into her lungs.
Flattening her palms against the bottom of the marshy pit, Megan hefted herself out. She cursed the snow for melting into these dreadful mud holes as she sat on a nearby tuft of brown winter grass. After wiping the muck from her eyes, she glanced about, wondering what had caused Titan's fright.
The puddle lay to her left, and to her right stood two black Hessians, polished to a near blinding shine. Apprehension raced down her spine as a large hand descended and gripped her arm like a manacle.
"Now I've caught you,” the man growled and hauled her to her feet.
"Release me at once,” Megan demanded, tugging at her arm. Fear and anger swelled in equal measures. They stood midway between the seven-mile distance separating the Kenbrook and Claremont mansions. No one would hear if she screamed for help.
Tipping her head up, Megan started to issue another demand for freedom when mud dripped into her eyes, blinding her. “Blast,” she hissed, blinking furiously. It burned like the devil. And wiping her eyes with her muddy hands would only make things worse. This thought came at the same time she realized the man hadn't let her go. She struggled.
"Cease your squirming, scamp, and tell me where this horse came from."
"I'll not tell you anything.” She continued to pull and twist, certain she'd have bruises for a month. “Now let me go.” Tears leaked from her stinging eyes.
"You shall not be released until you tell me exactly where you got this horse.” His deep voice thundered with impatience.
She opened her mouth to inform the blasted man that this was her brother's horse, and they were standing on her father's land, but she thought better of it. She had no idea who this man was or what his intentions were. What if he abducted her? Or worse? She swallowed hard. No one was around to stop him. With renewed determination, she fought even harder.
"What the hell...? Cease your struggling at once,” the man barked. “You're getting mud everywhere.” As if to verify his statement, a glob of mud plopped right on those shiny boots.
"You have no business with me.” A loud rip sounded in her coat's shoulder seam.
"The hell I don't. You stole my horse."
"What?” She squinted up at his blurry face in disbelief.
"Don't act innocent, little thief, admit you—"
"Thief? Thief?” she sputtered, then kicked the man square in his shin.
He grunted in pain, then issued a nasty-sounding growl. Oh hell, now she'd done it. Before she realized it, he was dragging her away. “What do you think you're doing?” she squeaked, unable to mask her fear.
He didn't answer. She blinked rapidly. The tears helped wash her eyes, and they didn't sting quite so bad. Her vision began to clear, and she could make out the stream ahead. Now, if she could just escape this madman.
After several more steps, he halted. “All right, little thief, this is your last chance. Either you answer my questions, or I'll throw you in."
She went rigid. He was insane!
"Did you steal the horse alone, or had you assistance?"
"I didn't steal—” The man took a step toward the stream. “All right,” she said, digging her heels into the marshy ground, “I shall tell what you wish to hear.” When he stopped and turned, she continued. “I run with a menacing band of cut-throats,” she lied. “Indeed, they wouldn't think twice about carving your liver out with a spoon and eating it for dinner.” She paused and turned toward the forest, pretending to scan the greenery. “They're surrounding us this very moment. You really ought to release me. Perhaps I can convince them to spare you.” She faced his tall, blurry form once again and prayed he would believe her.
The man expelled a long sigh. “My patience is running thin, scamp. Just admit you stole the horse from my estate, and I might not send for the magistrate."
Megan pulled at her arm, testing his hold. Blast! She might as well have been clapped in iron. “And where, pray, is your estate?"
"Three miles from across the stream,” he said, nodding east.
With an unmannerly snort, she shook her head. “Impossible, that estate belongs to the Duke of Claremont."
Clamping his hands around her upper arms, the man leaned down and snarled, “It is not impossible sinceI amthe Duke of Claremont.” While Megan's stunned brain absorbed those words, the blasted man lifted her off the ground and pitched her into the stream.
And that was terribly unfortunate. She couldn't swim.
Frigid water engulfed her and pulled her down. Thousands of icy needles pierced her skin. Unable to withhold her panic, Megan flung her arms about in a desperate attempt to rise to the surface. She kicked her legs, all the while thanking God she had swiped the stable lad's pants. A dress and petticoats would have pulled her straight down. Then again, she probably wouldn't be in this mess if she had worn a dress. Her head bobbed up once. She opened her mouth to scream, but swallowed water instead. Something pulled at her foot and down she went again. The more she struggled to rise, the lower she sank. Frantic, she peeled away her thick coat. But it didn't help.
Oh, God, she was drowning. Her lungs burned.
Then an arm slipped around her waist. She was lifted out of the water, choking and gasping, and set down on the coarse grass. The air she'd thought warm earlier sliced a frosty path through her skin and turned her bones to ice. Shivering, she wiped the wet strands of hair from her eyes, realizing her cap and hairpins were gone. She lifted her head. Her vision cleared, and she swallowed hard. Dear God, he was even more handsome than his portrait in the gallery at Claremont. Then it occurred to her that the duke might recognize her. She turned away. Oh, no, he mustn't recognize her, not looking like this!
"You're a...a girl!"
Nicholas stumbled back a step. With the mud cleansed away, he discovered that this was no boy, but a young woman, closer to twenty years of age than ten. A stunning young woman. Below her gracefully arched brows were thick, black lashes, spiked with droplets of water, drawing attention to exquisite amethyst eyes. Her skin, a creamy peach without blemish, made his fingers itch to caress the silky texture. And her lips were...
He frowned, noticing her trembling, blue-tinged lips. Then he realized her entire body was trembling.
"Take your clothes off,” he ordered, then gritted his teeth against the visions those words evoked. His eyes moved down the pale column of her throat, settling on the generous mounds quivering from the cold. He couldn't ignore what was plainly visible beneath the soaked white shirt plastered against her chest. Definitely closer to twenty than ten.
"I beg your p-pardon?” she gasped after a lengthy pause, anger building on her face.
No way in bloody hell was he going to repeat those words. He turned to his horse. “You will catch your death if you aren't warm and dry soon."
"And wh-whose fault w-would that b-be?"
Nicholas sighed and turned back. It took a great deal of strength to keep his eyes from straying down. “Do not place the blame upon my shoulders, lady,” he said, tapping his chest with his fingertips. “You should have answered my questions."
"Well you d-didn't have to th-throw m-m-me into the s-stream.” Sarcasm laced her words, even through chattering teeth.
He swung around. “Nor did I have to dive in and rescue you,” he said over his shoulder, then hurried to his horse. Why the hell hadn't he realized she was a girl?
"W-What are you d-doing?"
"I have a spare set of garments,” he explained without bothering to glance at the brazen little temptress. He rummaged through his saddlebag.
"I'll n-not take them."
Stifling a groan, Nicholas turned and folded his arms over his chest. “You must get warm and dry.” He also needed her covered. Fast. Seeing her breasts in such a revealing way made him crazed.
"S-So must y-you.” That unselfish response surprised him. Then he noticed the water droplets dripping from the ends of his hair, and the chill sinking deep into his skin. “I h-have a b-blanket,” she added and nodded toward the other horse.
Nicholas recalled his mission of finding his lost stallion. The saddle. Why hadn't he paid any attention to that earlier? He shuffled closer and found that it didn't belong to him. Although crafted of the finest materials, obviously the saddle of a very wealthy gentleman, it wasn't his. For the first time, doubt crept up on him. He removed the blanket and turned to the beauty shivering on the grass several yards away. She looked helpless and fragile. Could she really be a horse thief?
With the thick wool in his hands, feeling like a foolish dunderhead, Nicholas approached her. She needed to get warm; his questions could wait.
Kneeling before her, he unfolded the blanket and spread it across her trembling shoulders. She lifted a thankful gaze and favored him with a smile. God's breath, she was stunning. A fresh scent of jasmine rose up from her damp hair to tease his senses. He went still. Transfixed. A man under a spell. The desire flared within him to kiss her and heat her cold lips until they turned hot and pink. Nicholas could not escape the temptation.
Megan had been shivering so long and hard, her stomach muscles began to cramp. And she could feel her wet hair growing stiff. So when the duke spread the blanket over her shoulders, bringing a bit of relief from the cold, she smiled. As she watched his eyes grow dark and heavy-lidded, however, her smile dissolved. He lowered his head, and her breath lodged in her throat. She sat frozen, startled to realize he meant to kiss her, and unable to move away.
When his lips settled over hers, sweet, sweet warmth flowed into her, expelling the brutal cold. Her pulse roared in her ears, eclipsing all sound, and her insides melted down to her toes. How many times in the gallery at Claremont had she dreamed of his kiss? A hundred? A thousand?
His tongue brushed against her lips and Megan gasped, stunned by the lightning-bolt sensation. As he swept the interior of her mouth with his velvety probe, pleasure cascaded in waves throughout her body.
She heard him moan at the same time his arms came around her. He pulled her to him, his coat grazing the firm, sensitive peaks under her thin shirt and chemise. Never had anything felt so exquisite. His hold tightened around her, his tongue delved deeper, and she was lost in the intimacy of her first kiss.
When the duke lifted his mouth from hers, disappointment jabbed her in the stomach. If her bones hadn't turned to jelly, she would have pulled him back to her.
"Tell me your name,” he said, his breath a warm caress against her lips.
As she formed the sound of her name, Megan wrenched her eyes open, realizing what she was about to reveal. What was she doing with this man? Nicholas Bradshaw, the Duke of Claremont, her brother's enemy. She shouldn't be here with him...in the forest...alone...attired most inappropriately...kissing him!
Dear God, this man had the power to ruin her. With just a few details of what had happened today, she would be ostracized from society. Completely and forever.
Her parents would be devastated.
She shot to her feet, the blanket pooling to the ground. “I must go.” The duke's gaze lowered from her face and settled at a spot below her neck. She glanced down and gasped, wrapping her arms around her body. Oh, good Lord! She had no idea how revealing a wet white shirt could be. If she didn't leave this second, she would die of mortification. “I must go."
"You are not going anywhere."
She gasped. “You, sir, have no—"
"The horse,” he nodded to where Titan was nipping at some grass. “Where did you get him?” His voice sounded funny, a little raspy.
She was about to tell the blasted man the truth when she recalled one important detail. The Duke of Claremont was no friend of Julian's. “The horse does not belong to you."
He cocked a brow. “He looks just like the one stolen from my stables earlier."
She shook. From anger. From the cold. Mostly from anger. He was never this mulish in her daydreams. “Your Grace, I assure you, this horse does not belong to you.” She tried to keep from sounding cross, but found it difficult with a clenched jaw.
"Then who does it belong to?” He folded his arms, that damn brow rising even higher.
"This is absurd.” She shook her head and stepped in Titan's direction.
The duke blocked her path. “You are not going anywhere, lady."
Megan found the heat of his body surprisingly alluring. She had the strange urge to move into his arms. How ridiculous. He had just pitched her into the stream. And then kissed her!
He lifted his hand and grazed her cheek with his fingertips. That strange expression once again crossed his face. His words stopped her from batting his hand away. “You are so beautiful."
Tears threatened. Blasted, silly tears. Megan had waited so long to hear those words.So are you,she wanted to say. Almost said. But her throat clogged as memories and feelings swirled within her. Memories of standing before his portrait at Claremont and pretending to hear those words from him. Of her smiling and batting her eyelashes, playing the coy debutante. Of him professing his love and proposing marriage in a single breath. For years, she had envisioned the scenes in her head. Although it had been months since she last visited his portrait, she could recall every detail. She lifted her gaze to his. The same shade of blue. Then they grew dark and heavy-lidded. He started to lower his head. He meant to kiss her. Again!
A thought wheedled to the surface. Her brother hated this man. She could not be caught with him! Using every ounce of strength she possessed, Megan ran to Titan. Paying no heed to the duke shouting for her to return, she raced from the meadow. Escaping him would be easy this time. But not the next. Not when she was about to be launched into society.
Dear God, how would she escape ruination?
Nicholas watched her go, her taste still on his lips. Even fifteen rounds at Gentleman Jackson's had never left him so disoriented. When he pulled her out of the stream and found her to be female, he'd been speechless. Her wet clothes clung to her body, revealing curves that would drive a saint mad with want. Other than pure lust, he hadn't the faintest idea what made him kiss her. And what a kiss. He licked his lips and closed his eyes. She tasted like strawberries.
He ran to his horse. He would find her. Mad, yes. Crazy, definitely. Insane, probably. But something compelled him to go after her. He jumped on his horse and it sprang forward.
She had disappeared in the thicket of trees opposite the main road, and after an hour of searching, he decided to return to his estate. His hands tightened on the reins and he gnashed his teeth together. How the deuce she had managed to escape him, he would never know. She must be an accomplished rider to have out-maneuvered him. But that just brought about more questions. With one last sweep of his surroundings, he turned his horse around. He intended to have some answers.
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 2
Nicholas halted his horse before the red brick townhouse in Bond Street, London, and sighed in resignation. He prayed that after calling here on his mistress Angela, he'd forget the mystery woman's stunning violet eyes.
At least he knew of a certainty she wasn't a horse thief. On his way back to Claremont, he'd found his missing stallion munching on some winter grass. He felt like such an ass. If he could just find her and apologize...
The searing kiss they shared forced its way into his mind. He could still feel her breasts pressed against his chest, could still taste her honeyed lips as his mouth settled over hers. He groaned and mopped a hand down his face. Why was it so difficult to forget the bloody little chit? And why couldn't he find her?
Shaking his head, he marched up the steps. The housekeeper greeted him at the door and informed him that Angela was in the garden having tea. He walked through the elegant house and spotted the voluptuous redhead sipping out of a dainty teacup.
She beamed when she noticed him. Her green eyes lit up. “Nicky! You're finally back. How was the country? Dreadfully boring, I'm sure,” she replied before giving him the opportunity to answer.
"Hello, Angela.” Nicholas sank into the chair opposite her. Angela didn't affect him like she usually did. He sighed and rubbed his eyes with two fingers. That beauty sitting upon a tuft of brown grass, shivering and looking entirely too tempting filled his mind. He remembered how her eyes had grown soft and dazed when he kissed her, and how silky her skin felt against his fingertips. Damn! Why couldn't he get the nymph out of his mind? And why did he feel so desperate to see her again?
A loud crash sounded. He jolted upright and focused on fiery green eyes, set in a beet-red face with pinched lips that dipped down at the corners. Angela's teacup, saucer and teapot lay in a thousand shards of milky glass at his feet. “Are you finally back, Your Grace, or are you still up in the clouds with the birds?” she screeched at him.
With a long glare, Nicholas conveyed a silent reminder that he did not put up with such impertinence. “What were you saying?” he asked.
She swallowed and looked down. “I-I'm sorry, Nicky. Would you like some tea?"
He stared at the smashed pot and shook his head. “I think not.” Watching her sullen expression for a few moments, he groaned inwardly. He would require Angela to achieve a much better mood in order to drive the chit from his mind. “You look lovely. Is that a new gown?"
She brightened. “Why yes, it is,” she purred, pushing her bosom further out from her gown's low-cut bust line. She stood and sauntered to his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Let's go upstairs, Nicky, and I'll show you the other goodies you purchased for me. Then I'll thoroughly thank you for each and every one,” she added, rubbing her bottom over his groin.
Closing his eyes, not at all surprised when that violet-eyed nymph appeared, he nearly growled in frustration as he scooped his mistress into his arms and carried her upstairs.
Once in the bedroom, he brought his lips down onto Angela's. All thoughts of that razor-tongued temptress had to be exorcised from his mind. But the longer he kept his eyes closed, the stronger his memory of her became. Blurred details sharpened into vivid splendor and fantasy became reality. It wasn't Angela's soft lips he devoured, buthers. “Tell me your name,” he whispered and opened his eyes. Seeing Angela, he frowned, his body going soft.
Fury sprang into her eyes, and he knew she had felt his response. He rolled off the bed and began to straighten his clothes. He really had been bewitched. What in hell would he do now?
"Who is she?” Angela demanded. “The one you thought you were with?"
"That's none of your concern,” he snarled, turning to the door.
"Have it your way, Nicholas. I'm leaving."
He nodded without breaking his stride and left.
A few days later, Megan flew into the house, knowing she had little time to change out of her riding habit. Her parents expected her for tea at precisely four o'clock. She turned to the gigantic clock in the hall and made a face. Six blasted minutes!
Spinning toward the stairs, she prepared to bolt up to her bedchamber when she noticed the dowager Duchess of Claremont exiting the drawing room. Something in the lady's expression halted Megan. Worry. Had something happened to her son?
The thought made Megan's heart lurch. Nicholas! She pressed a hand to her chest and began in the lady's direction. “Has something happened, Your Grace?"
"Come, dear,” she insisted, linking arms with Megan, “we have something to discuss."
Nervous, Megan walked into the drawing room. She glanced around the empty chamber and frowned. “Where are my parents?"
The dowager patted her hand. “That is one of the things I wished to discuss with you, my dear.” She turned to the sofa. “Here, let us have a seat."
Her uneasiness grew, but she refrained from asking the thousand questions swirling around in her head until tea was served. She took the cup and sipped, not at all tasting the contents. “Where are my parents, Your Grace?” she asked again.
The cup in the dowager's hand trembled before she lowered it to the table. “I received a note just before they departed from the estate this morning."
"Departed? Where did they go? And why?"
The dowager duchess hesitated. “London, though I have no idea why."
"The note didn't say?"
The dowager moved her head from side to side, her perfectly arranged twist glistening silvery-gold in the nearby window's light. “No.” She pulled out a piece of ivory vellum from her drawstring purse and held it out. “I received this from your parents this morning."
Megan took the note and began to read.
A most important matter has arisen and calls for our immediate attention. There is no time to explain now. Expect another note with more details once we arrive in London. While we are away, please take care of Megan. Knowing our daughter is in your care will ease our troubled hearts.
Joseph and Margaret
The Duke and Duchess of Kenbrook
Lifting her head, Megan asked, “What important matter, Your Grace?"
"Mrs. Finch told me that your parents received an urgent missive just after the morning meal and departed soon after, though she had no idea what the missive stated. I hoped you knew."
Megan shook her head, regret for once again sneaking away to ride lying heavy in her bosom. “I'm afraid I have no knowledge of it, Your Grace.” She dropped her gaze back to the note in her hands. What terrible thing had occurred to make her parents rush off to London? Had something happened to one of their friends?
A knock sounded, pulling her from her thoughts, and she turned as the dowager invited the caller to enter.
The head housekeeper, Mrs. Finch, rushed inside. “My lady, Your Grace, pardon me, but there is a man to see Lady Megan. He says it's very important, something about a burned carriage,” she explained, wringing her hands together.
A moment's pause. “Send him in,” the dowager whispered, rising from the sofa.
With her legs turned to jelly, Megan struggled to her feet. That burned carriage was not a Kenbrook carriage. It was not. It was not.
An old man, garbed in soiled, threadbare clothing, shuffled into the room. His eyes darted around as he neared. “G'day, ladies, sorry ter be bargin’ in on ye. Name's Grover."
"Do you have important news about a carriage?” the dowager prompted, her voice a little stronger. Megan's throat clogged with fear.
He nodded. “Yes, well, I seen smoke ‘bout five miles back. An’ off the road, there be a carriage afire. But I got a real good look at the crest on the door."
"Are you saying the door held this emblem?” the dowager asked, pointing her collapsed fan to the spot above the room's fireplace.
Grover's rheumy eyes grew round as they focused on the solid gold shield of the Kenbrook crest. It contained thousands of precious stones that formed a large cross with a griffin on either side. He wouldn't stop staring at the priceless shield and the dowager had to clear her throat several times before the man looked back at her. She repeated the question twice more before he responded.
Panic tore a fiery path through Megan's insides. Her hands wouldn't stop shaking. She pressed them together and kept trying to convince herself that the burned carriage did not belong to her parents. But they were missing. She swallowed back a sob. Please. Please let her parents be all right.
"Yes'm, that be it,” he confirmed with a nod, then swung his stunned gaze back to the glittering buckler.
"Oh, no,” Megan gasped. She took a step but her foot caught on the Persian rug and she fell. She heard the crack of her head against the floor just as pain exploded in her skull. A loud roar filled her ears. Her limbs grew heavy. Then everything went black.
When Megan rose to consciousness, she had no idea how much time had passed. She focused on the painted ceiling and realized she lay on the bed in her chambers. The right side of her head pounded, so she let her eyes slide shut and remained motionless, waiting for the ache to pass. Then she heard the dowager duchess speak. The words sounded muffled, as though she had water in her ears.
"And you're absolutely certain, Dr. Benson, that Lady Megan will be all right?"
"Rest assured, Your Grace, she shall be fine. Just see that she consumes three drops of laudanum in water at bedtime each night for a sennight."
"Yes, I'll see to that."
"I also advise that Lady Megan be moved from the country as soon as possible. I've just been informed that five Kenbrook servants are infected with the influenza spreading through the countryside."
The dowager sighed. “Yes, I fear you are right. As you know, Claremont is infected as well. My brother Charles, who arrived three days ago, is now showing signs of fever. I could not possibly expose Megan to that.” There was a brief pause. “Would it be prudent to move her with such an injury, doctor?"
"Lady Megan should be well enough to travel tomorrow, Your Grace. In fact, I have a need to go to London at that time to purchase more medicine..."
Sleep tugged at Megan, lulling her into the darkness hovering at the edge of her consciousness. Then she thought of her parents. And the burned carriage. With a gasp, she opened her eyes. “Mother...Father...” she cried, struggling to rise from the bed.
The dowager rushed to her side, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Shhh, dearest. The footmen I sent to the carriage informed me there was no one inside."
The vice around her heart loosened. “Oh, thank goodness.” She slid back down onto her pillows. Her head pounded something awful. She took several deep breaths, and the terrible ache eased enough to speak. “You're sending me away?” she asked with a fleeting glance at the doctor.
"Yes, dear, to keep you from contracting influenza."
"Where am I to go?"
The dowager perched on the edge of the bed. Leaning forward, she removed a lock of hair that had fallen into Megan's face. “London."
"London?” she repeated, a funny tickle developing in the pit of her stomach. Then she recalled that her parents had gone there. “Yes. I could look for my par—"
Blue eyes turned stern. “No, dearest, Nicholas shall locate your parents."
Megan felt her jaw drop open. “Your son?"
"The very same. After I pen him a note explaining the situation, I am most confident he shall find your parents."
The memory of the duke's searing kiss exploded in her mind. Heat rushed over her cheeks. “I-I cannot possibly stay with your son, Your Grace,” she stammered, aghast at the very idea. Well...aghast and intrigued.
The dowager patted her hand. “Years ago, before my husband died, your father had certain guardianship documents prepared. The documents decreed that in the event your parents and brother were unable to care for you, the Duke of Claremont would become your guardian."
She didn't want to hear about guardians and documents. “Once Julian becomes aware that Mother and Father are missing, he is certain to make haste in his return."
"I have no doubt of that, dear, but your brother is currently at sea. It could take weeks for a message to reach him. Since Nicholas is now the Duke of Claremont, he is your legal guardian until your brother or parents return."
She cut her eyes back to the dowager. Of course, since his father's death years ago, his only son was the duke.
Fear surged at the thought of facing him again. But her parents needed to be found, even if it meant her ruination. Her parents could be out there somewhere, hurt. They needed to be found at whatever cost. She bit her lip. Would His Grace truly ruin her once he learned she was the Duke of Kenbrook's daughter? And Julian's sister, she thought, recalling the enmity between them. She dashed the wetness from her cheeks knowing she would take the risk. Any risk.
Before she could change her mind, Megan agreed to go to London.
To be in the care of the Duke of Claremont. Her brother's enemy.
The very man who had believed a lie instead of his one-time best friend.
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 3
Nicholas glanced about the dark-paneled room, trying to remember the damned clock's whereabouts. God's truth, he knew White's as well as his own townhouse. But his senses grew foggier by the moment. Since leaving the faro table some while ago, he'd been keeping company with the gin decanter.
He could no longer deny the truth. That violet-eyed wench had him twisted in knots.
A snuffbox in the shape of a woman's leg appeared beneath his nose. He grimaced as the strong odor of Macouba laced in brandy assailed him. He shook his head. “Curse your eyes, Jeremy. Are you trying to make me ill?"
His friend chuckled. “I'd rather be offering you a fine cigar. Unfortunately, snuff is the only form of tobacco allowed here. Try some, Nick, it's not half bad."
"Be damned, Jeremy, put that bloody thing away,” he insisted when his stomach flipped over.
Jeremy took the seat beside him and nodded for his usual whiskey. “I have a few things to discuss with you, Nick, but you look quite dull in the eye. Perhaps I should wait."
He welcomed anything that would take his mind fromthat girl. “I am not so fuddled.” He swiveled his head and focused on Jeremy. “What is it?"
His friend sipped from his glass, then set it aside. “I was at Brooks's last week while you were at Claremont and watched Stenwick lose a wager."
He hiked his brow. “I presume that means something."
"That wager lightened his purse by two thousand pounds."
Nicholas whistled through his teeth. “Surely that gave him the blue devils for a time."
"Nick, I saw the books. He hasn't paid a single debt in over four months.” Jeremy paused and lowered his voice. “I believe your uncle may be in a quandary."
He snorted doubtfully. “It's more likely his daft secretary misplaced the duns as he does Charles's invitations. The man is a complete imbecile.” He took a gulp of his drink. “Moreover, if Charles were in need of blunt, he'd speak to me of it."
"You are probably right. I've seen his secretary."
As Nicholas raised his drink to his lips, he felt Jeremy's gaze on him. He turned and found his friend watching him in careful contemplation. “What. Have I a bit of muck on my nose?"
"I just realized that you've been imbibing gin."
Jeremy grinned. “You guzzle the ghastly stuff only when you're troubled, Nick.” His grin widened. “Perhaps you need to initiate in a bit of amorous congress to help ease your disquietude,” he said and wagged his brows.
"Good Lord, Jeremy.” He glared at his friend. “The lack of copulation is not my difficulty."
"I daresay, Nick, you've been at sixes and sevens since you and that barracuda, Angela, parted company. What else am I to believe? Not to worry, old man, I know the perfect replacement,” he boasted. “Which happens to be the other thing I wished to discuss with you."
Sighing, Nicholas lifted his gaze to heaven, beseeching God for patience with his friend. “I am done with mistresses. By God, they're more trouble than wives.” He drained his glass, then lifted his hand and requested another.
"And you being such an expert on wives,” his friend replied dryly. “Aren't you even the least bit curious about the, um, lady?"
"She's very beautiful. And young."
Nicholas glared at his so-called friend. “Then you take her."
"I already have three mistresses and cannot afford another.” Jeremy blew out a sigh. “But I am tempted. This one is quite the go. So what say you?"
"I am not interested."
Jeremy looked stunned. “Surely, you don't actually miss that jealous, red-headed twit."
"Absolutely not,” he snorted. “In fact, I should have rid myself of Angela much sooner."
"Then what is plaguing you, old friend?"
He hesitated, reluctant to divulge any information about the brazen beauty he'd met. But he had to confide in someone. Her memory ate away at his soul. “When I went to Claremont, I met someone,” he said quietly into his glass. His friend listened. “I cannot banish her from my mind, no matter how hard I try.” He gulped down the remainder of his gin and nodded for a refill.
Jeremy's softly spoken question broke the thick silence. “What happened?"
He lifted the fresh drink to his lips. “We conversed for a while and then she disappeared.” He took a generous gulp.
"Where did you meet? On your estate?"
Feeling sufficiently numbed, he turned and studied his bemused friend for a moment before he answered. “We met by a small stream on the property's border. She's the most beautiful lady I've ever met. She was young, probably under twenty. She is absolutely stunning, Jeremy."
"Who is she?"
He grimaced. “I don't know. She left before I could even get a first name."
"Why don't you describe her in detail? Maybe I can help identify her for you."
He shook his head. “You haven't met her."
"How can you be certain?"
Releasing a long sigh, he wished he'd never started the conversation. “Because she's a commoner."
Jeremy choked on his drink. “Be damned, she's one of your tenants?"
"Then a tenant of Kenbrook's?"
"Perhaps.” He frowned. “I just wish I knew how to find her."
"And, my friend, what would you do if you did find her?"
He opened his mouth, then snapped it closed it with a click of his teeth. “Bloody hell. You're supposed to be helping."
"I am trying, Nick, but you're making things rather difficult."
"Oh? And how are you helping?"
A smile spread across Jeremy's face in slow degrees. “I've already explained, old chap. There is a young, beautiful damsel eager to expunge all of your unhappiness. Take my word for it, you shan't be disappointed."
"I don't want her,” he grated out. He couldn't just come right out and tell Jeremy what had happened with Angela. How his body had refused to respond. What if this was a permanent condition? He gulped down more of his drink.
Leaning back in his chair, Jeremy crossed his arms over his chest. “But you wouldn't hesitate to bed that gorgeous country girl."
He didn't bother to deny it. His body only responded when he thought of her. Blast it all to hell. He drained his drink and rose unsteadily. “I'm leaving now."
"Take care, Nick,” his friend said as he brought his glass to his lips.
With a curt nod, Nicholas left the gentleman's club, choosing to ignore the chuckle behind him.
After maneuvering his befuddled body into his carriage, he leaned his head back to ride the rest of the short journey in a blessed drunken haze. As the vehicle lumbered down the vacant, cobbled street, he did not allow sleep to pull him under. It would be near impossible to heave him from the carriage, and he didn't relish the idea of slumbering within the cold, cramped interior.
He felt the turn, then the smooth halt a few seconds later. The door swung out and he pried his eyes open. Exiting the high vehicle proved more difficult than entering. He stumbled as he stepped to the ground, then caught himself before swearing out loud. He shook his head when the footman offered assistance, then straightened his spine and walked carefully up the front steps. “Damned gin,” he mumbled.
One of the twin oak doors opened, and his impeccably dressed butler stood to the side, waiting for him to enter. “Good evening, Your Grace,” the man said with a bow.
"Carson.” He hurried past, in no mood to palaver.
"Your Grace,” Carson called to his retreating back.
He sighed heavily but continued his unsteady trek toward the stairs. “Whatever it is can wait until morning."
"But this note, Your Grace, is of utmost importance,” the man insisted as he followed. “And your ward—"
Nicholas spun around so fast, Carson nearly ran into him. “Mywhat?"
The butler held out an envelope, unfazed by the outburst. “The lady said this note will explain—"
"Lady?” he interrupted, lowering his gaze to the envelope. “Tell me, Carson, is the lady young and beautiful?"
"Oh, indeed, Your Grace."
Swearing inwardly, he vowed to get even with Jeremy. His friend should know better than to bring a girl like that into his family's home. He shuddered to think what his mother would say if she were to learn of this.
He swiveled around. “Worry not, Carson, I know what is going on."
"What about this note, Your Grace?"
Undoubtedly a ruse to gain entrance, he guessed as he took the envelope and dismissed Carson for the night.
Espying the thin strip of light glowing beneath one of the guestroom doors, he slowed his steps. “Wait until I see you next, Jeremy,” he hissed, shoving the envelope into his coat pocket. Turning the silver knob, he slipped soundlessly into the room. The lamp's rosy glow spilled over the bed and he saw thick, raven hair lying in slight disarray over the snowy pillow slip. He sucked in a breath, his thoughts turning to another with the same color hair. But it couldn't be.
He pushed away from the closed door and shuffled forward. He caught the faint scent of jasmine and his heart leapt. It couldn't be. But his body refused to listen to his mind as need swelled within him.
She moaned and turned over. Nicholas halted, his eyes riveted to her face. It was her! But when...how...? He shook his head. It didn't matter, he decided, stripping the cravat from his neck.
His mind spun with images of their entwined bodies, and his shaft swelled at the thought. He moved to the bed, wondering why she had traveled all this distance for him. His doubt eased when he recalled those hideous garments she'd been wearing the day they met. Certainly, she had come for one reason alone. To be his mistress.
With a jolt, his gaze flew from her breast outlined in the thin white material to her face.
She stared up at him.
As the gin's numbing effects began to diminish, he felt his doubt return. What if he was wrong about the reason she'd come?
"I'm glad you're here,” she sighed, closing her eyes.
Slumping in relief, for a lady glad to see him in her bedroom meant only one thing, he moved to the edge of the bed and sat. “And why, nymph, are you glad I'm here?” He had to hear the words.
"Because I need your help,” she answered softly, opening her eyes to reveal a glimpse of desperation.
He nodded. “You have it."
"Thank you,” she whispered, lifting her hand to his face. “I was afraid you wouldn't."
As her petal-soft fingertips grazed his cheek, he groaned. Then, unable to stand another second without tasting her, he lowered his head. “I am your servant."
She murmured something incoherent just before their lips met and he could swear lightning exploded within him.
It took only moments to shed his shirt and waistcoat. He refused to break contact, afraid the magic would end. He kicked his boots away, then worked the buttons at the front of his pantaloons. Dear God in heaven, she was to be his.
She groaned and he knew he could wait no longer. He moved one of his hands down her side and gripped a fistful of her night rail, then raised it up to her waist.
Her hands fluttered to his shoulders as he settled over her and he could taste the tanginess of her arousal on his tongue.
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 4
The dream had returned. Nearly every night since sharing that searing kiss by the stream, Megan had dreamed of the duke. His lips on hers, his hands holding her tenderly. A difference weaved its way into her mind. Tonight, Nicholas kissed her in a way she never before experienced. These kisses held power and magic. These kisses possessed her. And his hands...she gasped as a hand closed around her breast. He halted, and she opened her eyes. That face. That incredibly handsome face that had been branded into her memory since childhood. She reached up and touched his cheek.
"Am I moving too fast?” he whispered, his brows puckered.
"Nicholas. You must call me Nicholas."
"Nicholas,” she breathed, saying his Christian name out loud. That one little word brought such a rush of joy. She had imagined saying his name many times, even practiced in the mirror. But saying his name to his face brought her to the brink of tears.
He lowered his head and nuzzled her neck. “And what shall I call you?"
"You know my name is Megan.” She slid her eyes shut as tiny sparks of excitement skittered down to her toes.
"Megan.” He kissed just behind her ear, sliding his mouth over to her cheek. “Megan,” he said again, his lips finding hers.
A longing gripped her. It mounted and surged, swelled and bloomed. She had no power to fight whatever it was. From somewhere deep within her, her core was aflame and throbbing with desperate need. She had never before felt this way. And with each second, it grew worse.
His tongue moved over the seam of her lips and her thoughts scattered. She opened her mouth and allowed the delicious exploration. She couldn't think. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she kissed him back with all the feelings she had for him. All the years she yearned for him, all the hopes and dreams she had for a future with him. Nothing else mattered but Nicholas. Her Nicholas.
Nicholas nearly exploded. Megan drove him mad with need. Megan. Her fingers combed the back of his hair and he groaned. Another few seconds of this and he wouldn't be able to control himself.
"Megan,” he lifted his head, “are you ready, love?"
Her eyes swept up, dazed. Filled with passion. He swallowed. “Are you ready?” he repeated.
"Please.” She wiggled beneath him. “I need..."
"I know.” He kissed her deeply. Hungrily. He could wait no longer. He slid into her taut heat, not at all expecting to pierce the thin barrier of her maidenhead. But when he felt the breach and heard her gasp, he knew exactly what he had done.
Lifting his head, he gazed down at her. His chest pinched when he saw the pain in her eyes. “Oh, God, are you all right? Why didn't you tell me?"
She blinked several times, the pain receding from her eyes. “What?” she whispered in a strangled gargle.
Possessiveness welled up within him and his confusion vanished. No one had ever touched her. And no one would. He held her face between his palms, his gaze delving into hers. “You are mine, Megan. Mine alone.” He traced the tip of his right forefinger down her smooth cheek. “And I don't think I could ever let you go. Do you understand what I am saying?"
Her brows puckered and she shook her head slowly.
He closed his eyes, fighting for control, fighting the fierce need to keep her safe. “I want you to stay with me. Always,” he insisted, opening his eyes.
She looked strangely at him, her features softening. He swallowed. His heart pounded in his chest. He could hold her forever.
Megan stirred and opened her eyes. Her head felt like it was full of wool as she tried focusing on the fuzzy images dancing before her. She frowned. Laudanum caused these uncomfortable effects and she'd take no more of the horrid stuff. The throb from the lump above her temple was hardly noticeable anyway.
Gradually, her vision sharpened. She gazed around the lovely peach room and threw back the bed covers. Cool air met bare skin. Shocked, she remained still for several seconds, then glanced down. Her eyes widened in disbelieving horror. She wore not a stitch of clothing and the area between her legs throbbed . Then she sighted the smear of blood on the pristine sheet beneath her. Nausea churned within her stomach. Dear God, what had happened to her?
Images flickered in her mind, dreamlike. She watched the duke settle over her, his heavy body pressing hers into the bed, filling her...
In a desperate attempt to force the pictures from her mind, she squeezed her eyes shut. Clutching the sheet to her chest she groaned, humiliation spreading over her. With sickening dread, she knew what had transpired.
Then she remembered some of his words. She opened her eyes. He had told her she belonged to him and that he wanted her with him. Always.
Her panic diminished. Her fingers loosened from the sheet. Truly, those words could only mean one thing. She would become his wife.
How many times had she dreamed of this? How many times had she stood before his portrait in the Claremont gallery and imagined him professing his undying love, then asking for her hand in marriage?
She had always wanted that. Hadn't she? She bit her lip, feeling a spurt of disloyalty toward Julian. How would her brother react? She blanched, not at all liking the images that question evoked.
Glancing at the delicate mantle clock across the room, she noticed the time and pulled a face. How in the devil did it get so late? Moving to the edge of the bed, she noticed a slip of paper on the pillow beside her. Her heart skipped a beat. It had to be from Nicholas. A love letter, perhaps? Eager to read his honeyed words, she snatched up the note.
I cannot thank you enough for the wonderful gift you have given me, as well as for accepting my offer.
Please forgive my need for this hasty letter, but I must leave instructions for you to follow. I promise all will be explained later.
First, do not be frightened, I will be with you soon. Gather any possessions you have, along with the coin I left on the bureau, and hire a hackney to No. 17 Bond Street.
I will come to you as quickly as I can.
Once you arrive, Mae will see to your every need.
She wrinkled her brows. That didn't sound like any limerick of love. But the reason for the letter soon dawned. Since they were to be married, Nicholas might not be her guardian. Perhaps it was now improper for her to remain in his house without a chaperone. Some of Society's rules were ridiculous, but her parents would wish her to adhere to them. With a gusty sigh, she exited the bed and placed the note within her drawstring purse. She used the water in the bowl beside the bed for a quick wash, then retrieved her clothing and dressed, choosing a simple gown that buttoned up the front. She usually dressed herself, having sneaked to and from the estate on many occasions for an early morning ride, and had many gowns made to get on and off with ease.
Her hair, she found a few minutes later, was another matter. Her maid had been called away just as they were about to depart for London. But Lucy's mother had become very ill and needed assistance much more than Megan did.
After stepping into the rose-colored slippers that matched her gown, she left the room and walked down the stairs. The butler, identified by his black attire instead of Claremont's usual livery of burgundy and gold, passed and halted when he noticed her. She had spoken briefly to him when she arrived, she recalled.
"Can I be of some assistance, my lady?” he asked as his eyes darted to her valise.
"Yes. It seems I am in need of a hackney. Would you hail one for me?"
"Yes, of course, my lady,” he answered, unable to mask the confusion from his features.
In the hack, Megan clutched her wrist bag, Nicholas's note crinkling within. She chewed her lower lip, wishing she'd had the chance to discuss her parents with him before leaving. Her stomach grumbled. She'd eaten little since her parents’ disappearance, but now that she would have Nicholas's help finding them, the burden lightened.
As she rapped on the white painted door, she guessed that he had sent her to the mother of one of his friends. A duenna. She hoped he would arrive soon because she wished him to begin the search for her parents immediately.
The door opened. “Can I help you?” the silver-haired housekeeper asked.
Megan nodded. “I have arrived at the request of His Grace, the Duke of Claremont. He and I are—"
"Please, do come inside,” the woman interrupted kindly, excitement dancing within her dark eyes.
She marveled at the woman's manner until she realized that His Grace must have forwarded a message.
The housekeeper led her into an attractive pale green salon. She eased onto the green silk sofa, tamping down a surge of disquiet. How would the dowager duchess react to her son's sudden betrothal?
"Would you care for a spot of chocolate, miss?"
Ignoring the improper address as her stomach rumbled, she gave a weak smile. “Yes, that would be grand."
A few minutes later, the housekeeper placed a large tray of delicious-looking sweet rolls and a steamy cup of chocolate before her, then quit the room humming a cheery tune. She ate two of the tasty rolls and wondered about her hostess. Probably still abed, she concluded when she recalled what her mother had told her of the strange hours of the season. She wrinkled her nose, unable to imagine everyone socializing until dawn and then sleeping until noon. She rose with the sun no matter what hour she retired. Her nanny had once called it a curse.
The housekeeper returned as she was finishing the last of her chocolate. “That was delicious. Thank you..."
"Please, call me Mae,” the housekeeper supplied.
She smiled her appreciation. “Thank you, Mae.” Then she remembered the name from the note the duke had left. Odd that he would mention the housekeeper instead of her employer. “When will your mistress be rising? I would very much like to meet her."
Mae drew her brows. “His Grace, the Duke of Claremont, is my employer."
Her smile slipped. “I beg your pardon?"
"The Duke of Claremont is my employer,” the lady repeated. “You did mention him at your arrival.” Her eyes narrowed. “Have you any proof he sent you?"
Feeling dazed, she retrieved the note from her purse, hoping the woman wouldn't guess ‘the gift’ she'd given. She watched Mae's skepticism melt away almost at once. “This is His Grace's signature. You had me alarmed, dearie.” But before the cloud of confusion lifted, the woman continued. “Do forgive me, but I must be careful. I refuse to serve another spoiled brim like His Grace's last paramour. I am ever so glad to be rid of that one.” She lifted the sterling server and walked to the door.
Megan stared at the housekeeper for several seconds. Paramour? She closed her eyes and tried to recall the meaning of the word. She stood, grabbed her valise, and hurried after the housekeeper. “What is a paramour?"
Mae's face remained blank for several seconds. “Oh, dear,” she whispered, her hand flitting to her bosom. “Well...it's...that is...uh... It's when a man gives a woman a comfortable means to live in exchange for..."
Her heart sank. Nothing good was going to come from Mae's next words. Megan's dreams were about to be dashed into a million little pieces. The palms of her hands grew wet and a sick knot of dread churned low in her belly. “In exchange for what?” she prodded, her mouth dry.
"Bedding her,” Mae answered softly.
She felt the color drain from her face. “There seems to be a misunderstanding. You see, I'm positive His Grace has asked me here and not as his—his paramour,” she babbled, nearly choking on the last word.
The older woman shook her head. “I'm sorry miss, but there can be no other reason you're here. This house, you see, is used for that purpose alone."
Her stomach rolled over. Nicholas—her Nicholas—couldn't have meant for her to become his—his...
"Are you all right, miss?” Mae hovered near.
Megan clamped a hand over her mouth and ran from the house. She had to get out or be sick all over Mae. Dear God. She stumbled through the front door and took slow, deep breaths. Walk. Just walk. Sounds buzzed in her ears. She looked down at the valise she held in her white-knuckled grip. She quickened her pace. Get away. Coming to the end of the street, she looked around. Nothing looked familiar. A hack. Just call a hack and get away. She forced her hand up.
"Where to, m'lady?"
"Just get me away from here."
Megan settled back in the seat and closed her eyes. She tried to reason that Mae was wrong. But the more she pondered the duke's instructions, the more she began to realizeshewas wrong. Since their engagement had not been announced, she should have been allowed to stay in Nicholas's family home. Indeed, the simplest arrangement would have been to keep the engagement a secret until his mother's arrival.
Anger ignited somewhere deep within her and mounted with each turn of the hack wheel. She popped her eyes open. Before she could change her mind, she called out to the jarvey an address. She needed some answers.
The hack stopped. Fury raged through her veins, heating her blood to the point of boiling, but she'd not unleash it yet. Not until she heard the revolting omission spill from the duke's own lips.
"Please wait here. I shall not be long,” she instructed the jarvey. She climbed from the hired coach and marched to the structure in front of her. The door opened, but she spoke before she allowed the butler a word. “I insist upon seeing His Grace at once, it is urgent,” she ordered calmly, though her insides seethed with indignation.
"I am sorry, my lady, but His Grace has not left his chambers,” the man said with a hint of astonishment.
But she had already proceeded through the door and to the stairs before the butler finished speaking. The devil himself would not stop her now. No, she would not leave until she had answers. Then the Duke of Claremont could go hang. Certain which rooms belonged to the duke, she threw open the polished mahogany doors and marched forward. She rushed beyond the sitting room and into the dim bedroom, noting that the bed curtains had been tied back. Her steps faltered when she saw his nude form tangled in the white sheet and rumpled burgundy coverlet, but her anger propelled her on .
Straightening her spine, she turned to the butler, who had been sputtering behind her since she walked through the front door. “Leave us,” she ordered in the exact tone her father used when demanding obedience. He quickly bowed and left, closing the doors on his way out.
Nicholas started at the sound of that clipped command and pried open his eyes. Had sand been poured into them? An unpleasant tempo beat in his temples. He grimaced. Damned gin.
"What, exactly, is going on, Your Grace?"
The joy he felt at seeing his nymph standing there fled when he realized that she hadn't followed his instructions. “Didn't you receive my letter?” He sat gingerly up against the pillows.
Her eyes narrowed. “I went to that little house and met Mae, who informed me that I am to be your new paramour. Is that true?"
"Is that what you intended of me?” she interrupted. “Is that what you meant last night when you said that I would always remain with you?"
"Yes.” He sighed. Leaving her a note had been a bit tactless.
"I gave you my innocence,” she said, her voice turning ragged. “I thought—” She stopped and clamped her mouth shut.
He went still. “What? That I'd marry you?” She lowered her eyes, but not before he saw the answer in them. That was exactly what she'd thought. Rather, what she had hoped to gain. So, that was the game. She would rather be a duchess than a mistress.
He had been betrayed.
"Yes.” She lifted her head and speared him with a look of pure fire. “But that assumption was obviously made in error. Good day, Your Grace.” She spun around, heading for the door.
"Wait a minute. Where do you think you are going?"
She halted. “Worry not, Your Grace, I won't bother you again."
But she was already gone.
Disgusted, he rose from the bed and summoned his valet. When he was dressed, he lumbered down the stairs and called to Carson.
The man materialized at his side. “Yes, Your Grace?"
"Have my horse readied and brought around."
"Right away, Your Grace,” the man said with a bow.
"Wait, don't send for the horse just yet. I have some questions."
"Yes, Your Grace?"
"The, uh, lady that was here. Did she give you her name last evening?"
Carson's brows rose. “Of course. She said her name is Lady Megan, and that she is your ward."
"And you believed her?"
"I had no reason not to, Your Grace. She had a note from your mother the duchess."
Nicholas crossed his arms over his chest. “You read this note?"
"Of course not, sir. The note was addressed to you.” Carson paused. “I did give the note to you."
Nicholas did recall something about shoving a note into his pocket. He nodded. “Come, Carson.” He went back up the stairs to his bedroom and summoned his valet. “Where is the coat I had on last night?"
"Here, Your Grace. I found it on the floor."
Nicholas checked each pocket twice. “It's not here. Carson, look on the floor. Maybe it fell out."
"I do not see it, Your Grace."
Handing the crumpled coat back to his valet, Nicholas turned to the doorway. The same door thatLadyMegan had entered earlier. No doubt, she had come back for the note—an obvious ruse to gain entry into his home, hoping to dupe him. Damn! He wished he had read the letter when he had the chance. Perhaps then he would have seen through her scheme sooner, and last night would have never happened.
"Would you still like me to summon your horse, sir?"
Nicholas turned to his window. Did he still want to find her? No, not since he knew the truth. Not since he couldn't think straight in her presence. “No, Carson, I don't think I will need my horse after all."
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 5
"That...that—” Megan picked up a flower vase in her family's London townhouse and sent it sailing across the room, “—beast.” The vase struck the wall and splintered into shards, the cluster of lilies going everywhere. She looked for something else to throw. To destroy. Spotting the perfume vials, she marched forward and grabbed two. “Damn him, how dare he treat me with such—” One vial smashed just to the left of a window, “—utter disrespect!” She sent the other vial after the first, ignoring the smell of jasmine hanging heavy in the air. “And to think I spent my whole life mooning after him.” She clenched her fist, itching for something else to smash. As she marched toward the table with a horse figurine, a knock sounded at the door.
"Lady Megan? Are you all right, child?"
"Fine, Wentworth. I'm just fine."
"Sounds like Napoleon's army marching through your room."
She held the heavy porcelain in her hands, eyeing the bay windows at the far end.
"May I enter, please?"
With a sigh, she replaced the figurine. “Yes."
Wentworth hastened forward, not at all showing his eighty-plus years. He looked severe. “Is something amiss, my lady?"
"Besides my parents missing, you mean?"
He glanced around at the broken glass, upturned tables, and pillow feathers littering the floor. “This is not the work of grief, my dear.” His all-knowing, all-seeing gaze swiveled back to her. “This is fury."
Megan crossed her arms. That scoundrel...that cad...that wretch of a man had taken advantage of her. She had been under the influence of laudanum, and his black soul had—she curtailed the thought quickly, knowing her cheeks were glowing red.
"Would you like to talk about it, child?"
Megan shook her head. “Goodness, no.” She needed to talk about something else. She arranged the stuffed cockatoo Julian had given her to regain her composure. “Have you received any word of my parents yet?"
His features softened. “Not in the twenty minutes since I sent the messages out, no."
Her shoulders drooped as the fury drained out of her, leaving her weak. Since her arrival here earlier, she had informed Wentworth about her parents and the burned carriage, asked him to send messages to the friends of her parents for any word on their whereabouts, and then taken refuge to her room. Damn Nicholas for not helping her when she needed him. He could search for her parents and make inquiries. She, on the other hand, was limited by Society's ridiculous rules and couldn't go looking for her parents on her own. Unlike the Duke of Claremont, who could do anything he damn well pleased. Tears stung the backs of her eyes. The Duke of Claremont did to what he damn well pleased. Even at her expense.
"Are you all right, child? You look as white as a marble statue.” He stepped forward. “Shall I send for the doctor?"
Blinking back her tears, Megan shook her head. “No, I'm just tired.” Her temples pounded and her throat burned. A strange lethargy had sneaked up on her suddenly. She looked around her once-pretty room and sighed. The maids would be none too happy about cleaning this mess.
"What you need is some rest. Come, let me prepare one of the guestrooms for you."
"No, thank you. I think I just need some fresh air.” The heavy smell of jasmine made her head throb. A ride on one of her horses would be better, but she would have to settle for a walk. Maybe that would energize her. “I won't be long."
"This had bloody well better be a matter of life and death, Carson,” Nicholas said as he slammed the front door. He had been about to spar with Lord Marshley at Gentleman Jackson's when he received the urgent message to return home.
Carson held out an envelope. “The note has been found, Your Grace."
He took a step toward his butler. “That's why you summoned me here? I thought the matter was urgent."
"It is. Look.” Carson turned the envelope over, revealing the Claremont signet clearly impressed in the red wax.
The bottom of his stomach fell away. “What is this?"
"The note the lady claimed came from the dowager duchess, Your Grace."
"Where did it come from?"
"Stella found it.” Carson paused and lowered his voice. “Under the bed in the guestroom the lady used. When I saw the signet, I knew I had to summon you at once."
Bombarded with confusion, he broke the seal and unfolded the missive. His heart skipped a beat when he saw his mother's tiny, looping script swim before his eyes on the bright paper.
This letter must come as a surprise, however it is extremely important. Your Uncle Charles has arrived ill (do not be concerned, it is not serious), and I must remain here, or I would see to this urgent matter personally.
My dearest friends, the Duke and Duchess of Kenbrook, are missing. They departed days ago on a mysterious trip to London, but told no one their reason for doing so. Then their empty carriage was found near here, ruined by fire.
Their daughter is distraught with worry and wishes her parents found. I would keep her here, but Influenza is spreading at both Claremont and Kenbrook. Therefore, I am sending her to you, but not without reason. Years ago, your father was pronounced her guardian in the event that her parents and brother were unable to care for her. Since your father's death, that position has fallen upon you. You are her legal guardian until the duke and duchess or their son return.
Because Megan is only ten and eight, she must be protected by someone I trust and who will be able to help find her parents.
Take care of her, darling. She is a very special young lady.
Nicholas read the letter three times before he looked up. The paper slipped from his fingers and fluttered to the floor. His cluttered thoughts sharpened on one thing: Megan was not some gold-digging harlot, but the Duke of Kenbrook's daughter. By God, he had completely forgotten that Kenbrook had a daughter, having not visited Kenbrook in nine years.
Lady Megan. His heart twisted in agony. He shook his head a couple of times before he became aware of Carson addressing him.
"Are you all right, Your Grace?"
He focused on his butler's concerned face. “Yes. Carson, have my carriage brought to the front.” His voice came out in a coarse whisper.
"Right away, Your Grace."
Nicholas rode the whole way to the Kenbrook townhouse, torturing himself by replaying every second that he wronged Megan. Every second he hurt her. Oh, God, had he really thought she was a...His mother's words rushed to his mind.Because Megan is only ten and eight, she must be protected by someone I trust...She must be protected by someone I trust. She must be protected. Someone I trust. Protected.
He squeezed his eyes shut as searing self-contempt crushed his chest. He prayed his heart would explode before he had to face Megan with a completely inadequate apology. Looking into her beautiful eyes and seeing the loathing that he deserved would be torture.
The carriage came to a halt. He staggered to the door, pausing a minute to gather his courage, then banged on the door.
"Your Grace! My, this has been a month for surprises. Please, come in. Would you care for some tea?” Wentworth held the door open.
He glanced down at the ancient butler, amazed that the old chap still remembered him. “No, thank you, Wentworth. I would like a word with Lady Megan. Is she in residence?"
"She returned from a walk a short time ago, Your Grace. But I believe she may be indisposed."
The man's rheumy eyes looked worried. “Which room is she occupying?” he demanded.
Wentworth didn't hesitate. “Left hall, extreme end on the left."
He took the steps two at a time. He hastened through the sitting room toward her bedroom. He swung the door open with a bang and his eyes flew to the crumpled body on the floor two feet from the bed.
"Oh, no!” he choked. He turned and found Wentworth hovering near the door. “Summon a doctor immediately,” he ordered. Gently, he gathered her in his arms. She burned with fever and her skin had a deathly wan look. Carefully, he laid her on the bed. She didn't rouse. He used the nearby washbowl to cool her fevered cheeks. His hands shook.Please, God, let her be all right.
Just as he covered her shivering body with a thick, warm blanket, the doctor arrived and hurried to her bedside. The man told Nicholas to leave.
Like a caged tiger, he paced the sitting room. Time slowed to an agonizing degree. After what seemed like hours, the door opened. He jerked around, and his heart sank at the doctor's grave expression. “How is she?"
The large man sighed and removed his spectacles. “Not good, Your Grace,” he answered sadly as he scrubbed the two pieces of glass with a handkerchief.
He swallowed the lump in his throat. “Explain what you mean."
"The young lady is very ill, indeed. She has quite a high fever. It's no doubt the Influenza."
Every word struck Nicholas like a stake to his heart. “She isn't going to die, is she?"
The doctor smiled in understanding. “She has a great advantage in being young, Your Grace. The fever does have me concerned. It must be broken with cool compresses. However, if it doesn't linger overmuch, she should recover nicely."
"Thank you, doctor. I shall make certain she receives the proper care."
The doctor placed his hand on Nicholas's shoulder and gave him a slight squeeze. “Good. I'll be nearby in case you should need me, Your Grace."
Nicholas remained at Megan's side every minute for the rest of the day and during the long night. Since he couldn't sleep, he sat in the chair beside the bed and spoke softly to her. While he focused on her pallid, drawn features, he recited stories of his childhood mishaps and his world travels. Even when his voice had grown coarse from overuse, he continued.
At daybreak, after he'd recited several of his most notorious boxing contests, he paused to run his fingers over her flaming cheek. He bowed his head and sighed. He couldn't lose her. Not now. Not when he had just found her. “Megan, I do not know if you can hear me. You didn't deserve any of the misery I gave you. Not one second of it. I was wrong, love, so very wrong.” He remained in her room for two days and nights. He had come downstairs only twice, for the two brief meetings with the investigators he'd hired to locate her parents. He refused to allow anyone else to tend to her. On the third day, pink fingers streaked the morning-grey sky and birds were beginning their primordial song. He shuffled away from the window with a sigh and slumped on the chair beside the bed, his mind numb from lack of sleep. He longed for his bed, but he would not leave. Not until she woke. He propped an elbow up on the chair's wooden arm, rested a beard-rough cheek in his hand, and stretched his legs out before him. Suffused with exhaustion, both physical and emotional, he closed his eyes.
Something jogged him to full consciousness. He stretched his arms above his head and yawned heavily, then rubbed his hand over his face to measure the length of growing stubble. He blinked a couple of times and glanced at Megan. She was still and pale, except for the red stain growing on her cheeks. He felt her skin, the heat startling him. Alarmed, he reached for the water basin and found it empty. He jumped to his feet and went to the door. The doctor had arrived. He could hear the man's muffled words through the oak.
"Has Lady Megan come to yet?"
"No, doctor.” Wentworth lowered his voice. Nicholas had to strain to hear. “Do you think she will recover?"
"These things are hard to predict. But I do know the longer she remains unconscious, the more serious this becomes."
Nicholas placed a hand on the cold wood, trying to deny what the doctor was saying. Megan could die? Fear, unlike anything he had ever known, rose up from within and threatened to choke him. It clawed at his throat and took his breath away. Megan couldn't die. By God, he would not let that happen.
Wrenching the door open, he startled Wentworth and the doctor. He pressed the water basin into the butler's hands. “I need water.” He turned to the doctor. “And Megan is not going to die. Understood?"
Brightness manifested behind her eyelids and Megan struggled to lift them. Slowly, she focused on the sunlight pouring through the windows.Herwindows. She was in her bedroom in London.
Swallowing the dust that had accumulated in her raw, burning throat, she turned her heavy head and spied the duke asleep on a chair beside the bed. He looked awful. Dark blue smudges lay under his closed eyelids. His clothes were wrinkled, his hair a disheveled oily mass, and he desperately needed to shave.
Snippets of memory tickled her mind. She recalled him speaking lovingly to her, cooling her fevered forehead. She heard tears in his voice as he apologized for what had happened between them.
The door opened, drawing her attention. A portly man with small oval spectacles walked into the room carrying a large, black leather satchel. She watched the duke open his tired eyes, then rise when he became aware of the man. When he glanced in her direction, his features stiffened in surprise, then grew contrite.
"Well, Your Grace, it looks as though our little lady has finally returned to us,” the man said. He walked to the bed wearing a warm smile. “Hello, my dear, I am Dr. Kellerman. How are you feeling?"
She parted her cracked lips and swallowed a couple of times before she tried to say she felt better.
The doctor shook his head. “That's all right, my lady, you mustn't strain yourself. I'll do the talking.” He sat on the chair the duke had vacated and raised her wrist as he spoke of the fine spring morning.
She kept her attention on Dr. Kellerman, even though she was aware of Nicholas hovering at the foot of the bed.
"You must receive plenty of rest, Lady Westland.” The doctor hefted a giant brown bottle from his bag. “And take a large spoonful of this restorative tonic three times every day until it has been fully consumed. I will also leave some laudanum in case you are uncomfortable and need sleep."
Goodness, no, she would never take that dirty old laundry water again. Unable to resist, she looked at the duke, but his guarded eyes made it difficult to discern his thoughts. When the doctor began speaking, she focused back on him.
"His Grace has been quite worried about you, my dear. You are most fortunate to have such a concerned guardian,” he said. “I will continue to monitor your condition every day for the next couple of days. But it looks as though you will fully recover. Now, get some rest. And fear not, my lady, His Grace shan't allow any untoward thing to happen to you.” The large man rose and bade them a good day, then vacated the room.
She shifted her gaze back to Nicholas.
He sighed, then shuffled back to his seat. “What I have done to you is beyond any measure of forgiveness.” He paused and cleared his throat. “What happened between us...” He shook his head. “I know there is absolutely nothing I can do that would atone for my actions, but please...” He stopped and closed his eyes. “Oh, God, Meg, I am so very sorry.” He shot to his feet and fled the room.
Nicholas stayed away long enough to gulp down some gin. He hung his head as he headed back up the stairs. He felt the pulse at his neck begin to race as he entered the room. Dread filled him. She would probably insist that he be hung, drawn and quartered. He bloody well deserved it. “Can I... Do you need anything?” he asked.
When she looked at him, tears filled her eyes. “Find my parents,” she whispered.
His insides shook so badly, he thought everything within would break into a million pieces. She was actually asking him for help.Him. Humbled, he blinked his stinging eyes. He would find her parents. By God, he'd do whatever it took to regain her affection. “I promise you, Megan, they shall be found. I have already hired dozens of investigators."
Her eyes brightened. “What have you learned, Your Grace?"
"Wentworth has confirmed that your parents were in residence for only one night, then departed at dawn the following morning. Unfortunately, he has no idea where they've gone."
She picked at the lace on her sleeve. “Wentworth said he heard Father tell Mother that Sims would deliver a note explaining everything to me. That's why the carriage had been returning to the estate."
He nodded. “And then they hired a hack and departed one way, Sims, the other."
"That's right. Have you learned anything else, Your Grace?"
Your Grace. For the first time in his life, he detested the title. “You know my name. Please, call me that."
She smoothed a wrinkle from the bedspread. “I would prefer not to, Your Grace."
That stung. He wanted to make amends. Hell, he wanted more than that.
"Your Grace?” Her amethyst gaze lifted, and he felt a kick square in the gut. God, how he wanted her. More than simple lust. He wanted to protect her. A fine mess he'd made of that. Not only had he propositioned Kenbrook's only daughter to becoming his mistress, he had taken her maidenhead.
He shook his head. “What did you say?"
"Have you learned anything else?"
He cleared his throat, trying to focus on the matter at hand. “Some of the men I've hired are searching for the missing coachman, Sims, while the rest are combing the city for your parents.” He leaned a bit closer. “Megan, they shall be found."
The silence stretched out. One minute became two, then three. Every second seemed to pull them farther apart. “Meg, about what happened—"
"Don't, Your Grace,” she interrupted. “I don't ever want to think of it, much less discuss it.” She closed her eyes as if speaking had exhausted her. “If her mother has recovered, I would like my maid, Lucy, to be brought from the estate. Would you send a coach and driver?"
"Yes, of course. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
She opened her eyes and looked straight into his. “Yes. Go home and get some sleep, Your Grace. You look like hell."
He ground his teeth. Things hadn't gone as planned. Megan should have been in his possession by now. He knew exactly what had gone wrong. She was brought to London instead of Claremont. Damn it! He twisted the ring on his little finger. The plan would have to be reworked. Just a setback.
With a sigh, he sat down at the secretary and began scribbling a note. Perhaps having Megan in London could work to his advantage. He pursed his lips. He scratched out some words, growing more satisfied that the altered plan might work out even better. After sealing the note, he leaned back in his chair, satisfied.
Megan tossed and turned. She knew that she would never rest the two hours each day that the good doctor insisted. Groaning in frustration, she bounced from the bed and began to restore some order to the tangled mass of her hair. Then she rang the pull for Lucy to help her dress.
"Here, my lady, let me,” the maid said, seeing her struggle with her hair.
Lucy was an angel, she thought with an inward smile. She used to detest all of the attention the maid showered on her. But after dressing herself for a short time, she felt grateful to have the attentive lady's maid with her. And in the two weeks since Lucy's arrival in London, she was actually glad to have her maid care for her instead of the duke. Indeed, she refused the remorse bubbling within, reminding her how he had wiped her forehead with cool water and fed her spoonfuls of broth.
After Lucy had arranged her hair, Megan went downstairs.
"My lady, the Duke of Claremont requests a meeting with you,” Wentworth announced. “He's waiting in the parlor."
A groan slipped from her lips. She knew a confrontation would eventually occur. The stubborn man had returned with luggage and his valet a short time after she'd told him to leave. Although she would never admit it, she ached to know what was happening with the investigation. True to his word, the Duke was working feverishly with the investigators to locate her parents.
She frowned, not wanting to feel pleased with the man. The door to the parlor opened and the duke stepped out. He looked exceptionally fine in a crisp white shirt with a grey waistcoat, charcoal pantaloons, and polished black Hessians. A large pear-shaped diamond sparkled brilliantly in the center of his snowy cravat. Her gaze moved up to his freshly shaven face. Goodness, the man could still take her breath away. Her frown deepened.
She watched his eyes skitter over her before he cleared his throat. “May I have a word with you please, my lady?” he asked in a gentle voice.
She thought of her parents and nodded. Her acquiescence most certainly had nothing at all to do with wanting to be near him.
She clasped her hands together and followed the duke into the parlor. “What have you learned of my parents, Your Grace?"
His shoulders drooped. “Will you not call me Nicholas?"
"Stubborn girl,” she heard him grumble as he went to the sideboard and poured some amber liquid into a tumbler.
"My parents, if you please."
"The investigators are still looking for them.” He tossed back the contents.
"Then why did you wish to see me?"
His eyes fused with hers, rooting her to the spot. He took a step in her direction, then stopped and shook his head. “Can you not guess, Megan?"
Her body tensed. “Guess what, Your Grace?"
He opened his mouth to say something, then must have thought better of it. Instead, he turned back to the liquor tray. “Why did you not tell me who you were when we first met?” He finished pouring his drink and turned.
Caught off guard, she examined the cream silk shawl tossed over her arms. “A lady doesn't dress as a stable lad,” she said, then lifted her head. “I was afraid you'd ruin me if you learned my identity."
His brows shot up. “Why would I do that?"
She hesitated, wondering how he would react to her answer. “Because Julian is my brother."
The glass halted midway to his lips. His eyes darkened and he clenched his jaw. After a moment, he sipped his drink, the anger receding. “Why were you dressed as a stable lad?"
Her cheeks warmed. How many daughters of a duke would ride a horse dressed as a stable lad? She tossed her head back and squared her shoulders. “In order to gain maximum speed, one must ride astride. As you are aware, Your Grace, unmentionables happen to be the best garments for the job."
"I see.” He lowered his eyes and she knew he was remembering her in those tight, wet garments. Her entire body went warm. Clearing her throat, she asked, “Have you any more questions, or may I be excused?"
He nodded. “I do have another question, my lady. When I recalled that Joseph had a daughter, I thought that she—that you were named after your mother."
"I am. Megan is my familiar name."
He lowered the empty tumbler on the nearest table and approached her. “Call me Nicholas."
Standing so close, feeling the heat of his body, inhaling his unique scent of sandalwood, she could hardly think. “You know I cannot call you that. ‘Tis not proper."
"Yes, it is."
She shook her head, unable to speak, as a thought dawned. She was partially responsible for what had happened. Indeed, if she hadn't kept her identity from the duke at the stream, none of it would have come to pass. “So, you didn't know who I was the night we...” She swallowed hard, unable to finish.
His gaze roved over her face, settling on her lips. “No."
"Then h-how did you finally learn my identity?” she asked, needing a distraction.
"Carson gave me this.” He extracted a folded note from his pocket. “It must have fallen from my coat and slipped under the bed that night.” His eyes darkened, and she knew he recalled what had happened between them. “If I had just read it before...” He stopped talking.
Megan forced her eyes from his to the paper he held. Agony sliced through her tattered heart at the reminder that her parents were still missing. She wrapped her shawl around her trembling body and turned away. Misery crashed down on her like the pounding surf on a stormy shore. Something terrible must have happened to them. They would never say away this long without contacting her. Pain swelled in her chest. Not unless they... She refused to finish the thought.
Light and cautious hands turned her around. She tipped her head back and found blazing eyes full of guilty pain. His hands trembled as they cupped her cheeks, then his thumbs gently swiped at tears she hadn't been aware of shedding.
"I promise you, Meg, your parents will be found,” he rasped. His voice held tenderness.
Her grief lessened. But as he started to move away, she knew a moment of panic. Their relationship had changed. The way he wiped all expression from his face proved it. He had pulled away from her, physically and emotionally. As soon as his mother arrived, she knew with utter certainty he would be out of her life forever.
He lowered his hands and took a step back. “Nicholas,” she groaned softly, torn at the thought of his leaving. She wet her dry lips, realizing he would not return to her. She would have to go to him. He was leaving the decision solely up to her. Expelling a shaky breath, she took a step forward. Hope sparked in his eyes. With a squeak, she flew into his arms. “Oh, Nicholas,” she sighed, feeling him shudder. Then she lifted her head. “Kiss me,” she insisted, raising her hands to thread her fingers through his cool, soft hair.
He closed his eyes and wagged his head from side to side, as though fighting some inward war. His jaw tightened, and Megan thought he might refuse her. Then he opened his eyes, eyes aflame with a fierce emotion she couldn't identify. And instead of pushing her away, he lowered his head and pressed his lips to hers.
Her thoughts scattered and sharpened on one thing. She belonged to Nicholas. Even as a child she knew. She had always belonged to Nicholas.
"Get your bloody hands off of my sister,” said an irate voice from the doorway.
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 6
Megan gasped and pulled away from Nicholas. “Julian!” She threw herself into his arms. Her brother was home. He would find her parents. “Oh, Jules, thank God you're here,” she sobbed against his chest.
"Just what in the hell have you done to my sister, Claremont?” her brother asked with venom dripping from each syllable.
She cringed and lifted her head. “Julian, please. Mother and Father are missing. That's why I sent you the urgent missive to come here.” She nodded to the letter he clutched in his fist.
He glanced down, his frown deepening. “What do you mean, they're missing?"
"They departed for London last month. I don't know why. Their carriage was found a few days later about five miles from the estate, empty and... Oh God, Julian, it was destroyed by fire. I came here to look for them."
His brows shot up. “You came alone?"
She nodded, stepping from his arms.
Julian scowled. “Megan, any one of a hundred terrible things could have befallen you. Young ladies of quality do not travel alone, nor do they permit a man,” he paused to glower at Nicholas, “to be alone with them."
She felt the sting from those words down to her toes, but she refused to show it. “Under normal circumstances, I agree. However, I had to find Mother and Father.” Then she realized that Julian hadn't remembered the terms of her guardianship. She would tell him later.
"Pray tell, how were you to conduct the search? And don't you dare inform me that you planned to do it alone."
She turned to Nicholas.
"Oh, no.” Her brother shook his head. “He is not involved in this. In fact, Claremont, you may leave now,” he ordered.
"I am already involved in this,” Nicholas said, crossing his arms.
Dread filled Megan as she watched fury leap into her brother's eyes.
"Absolutely not,” Julian snapped. “And never again shall you be allowed any contact with my sister."
Nicholas shook his head. “You don't understand—"
"No, you don't understand,” her brother interrupted, his voice rising. “Megan is my responsibility; she will have nothing to do with you."
Anger flared into Nicholas's eyes. “That's quite impossible now,” he shouted back, uncurling his arms. When he took a menacing step toward Julian, Megan gasped.
"You have absolutely no rights where my sister is concerned,” Julian roared.
"Yes, I do.” Nicholas balled his hands into fists.
"Julian. Nicholas. Please,” she implored.
Both men ignored her. They stood a hand span apart, eye-to-eye, equal in height and strength. Dear God, they would kill each other.
"What makes you think you have any rights where my sister is concerned?” Julian demanded.
"Because I'm going to marry her,” Nicholas bellowed.
She gasped and Julian lunged forward, his eyes glittering with murder. “You bloody bastard!” He swung his fist.
Nicholas ducked, but before he could retaliate, she wedged between them. She spread her trembling arms to keep them separated. “Stop it. Both of you,” she ordered, looking from one menacing face to the other. She turned to Nicholas. “Julian and I must form a stratagem to locate our parents. I think you should leave now."
"You heard her, Claremont. Get out.” Her brother placed protective hands on her shoulders. The gesture made it clear just who was in charge of her.
Nicholas shifted his eyes down to her. She held her breath, watching the fury drain from his expression. “I'll leave,” he said, “but the investigators I have hired to locate your parents—"
"I do not require your help, Claremont. You've done enough,” her brother sneered. “Besides, I am quite capable of locating my parents."
Nicholas clenched his jaw, but his eyes didn't lift from hers. “My investigators shall keep searching,” he vowed softly. Then he left.
Once they were alone, Julian turned her to face him with a hard stare. “Start from the very beginning, dear sister, and don't you dare omit a thing,” he said, leading her to the Queen Anne sofa.
She omitted quite a lot, except that Nicholas had been her guardian. He'd learn of it from any one of the servants, anyway.
The explosion occurred just as the words tumbled from her lips. “I bloody well don't believe it!"
She clamped her hands onto his rock-solid arm and repeated what the dowager duchess had explained about her guardianship. She added that the dowager had promised to arrive as soon as her brother, Lord Stenwick, was well enough to travel. She summarized what had been gleaned of their parents’ disappearance, hoping his thoughts would center on them and not on Nicholas.
He shot to his feet. “I must leave for a short time,” he said.
"Where are you going?"
"To begin the search for Mother and Father,” he answered as he pulled the door open and walked through.
Nicholas paced his study. Be damned, why couldn't he have seen that Megan wasn't some commoner at the stream? She had refined speech and aristocratic features.
A jolt of awareness shot through him, and he came to an abrupt stop. The beautiful little nymph would be his wife. The way she reacted to him earlier left little doubt that he just needed a bit more time to convince her of it.
He chuckled. For many years, he'd fought hard against being ensnared into marriage, much to his mother's consternation. And now he wished for nothing above marriage to Megan. After pouring himself a whisky and settling into the comfortable leather chair behind his desk, he raised the glass into the air to celebrate his good fortune. But just as he brought the drink to his lips, a disquieting thought nettled its way into his mind, something—rathersomeonewho would ruin his chances with Megan. He lowered the crystal tumbler onto the polished wood with a bang, sloshing a goodly portion of the amber liquid over his hand. Megan's brother. According to the guardianship papers he had found within his father's repository in the study, Julian was named above the Duke of Claremont as Megan's custodian in the event that both of her parents were unable to care for her. As long as Julian remained her guardian, Nicholas knew that he would never be allowed to marry her.
Damn him. He would not permit the man to take another love from him.
Then he realized that Julian was but Megan's temporary guardian. Her father would certainly return. Joseph Westland's strength and cunning were as vast as his wealth. And upon hearing the truth, he was bound to agree to the marriage.
That was, Nicholas thought, if Megan's father didn't kill him first.
Megan watched Julian take a deep sigh. His guarded expression sent chills through her.
"Moppet, I feel that I must inform you of something."
She gripped his hands. Tears glazed her eyes and stung her nose. “Oh, Julian, Mother and Father..."
He shook his head. “No, no, I have hired many investigators to locate them. Our parents will soon be found."
She slumped with relief.
"I wish to speak to you regarding Claremont,” Julian continued. “Take heed, Megan. I know why he seems enamored of you and has proposed marriage."
Heat bloomed in her cheeks. “Julian, please.” She made a careful study of the row of pearl buttons at the end of her gown's long sleeves.
"I am a man, dear heart, and understand the workings of men rather well."
She sighed and raised her head. She might as well have this done with. “Very well, why does the duke seem enamored of me?"
His eyes went as dark as thunder clouds. “Revenge."
"He still holds me responsible for a transgression I never committed,” Julian explained calmly.
"Are you referring to that incident with Emily Wakefield?"
"How did you—” He halted and shook his head. “Yes. And now Claremont is using you for his revenge."
"Julian, that is absurd. His Grace had no idea I was your sister when we first met,” she said without thought.
He tensed. “How is that possible when you indicated that his mother had sent you to him?"
She cursed her blunder. Knowing she had no alternative, she confessed to the accidental encounter with Nicholas at the stream and his belief that she was a commoner. She didn't dare elaborate, but made the entire affair seem brief and trivial.
Julian chuckled humorlessly. “I daresay, dear sister, he knew who you were."
"How could he have known? I was but a child when he last saw me,” she pointed out.
"How many young ladies with dark hair and violet eyes are there on our estate? Or in all of Europe, for that matter?"
She closed her eyes and allowed her head to fall back against the sofa. Could Julian be right? Had Nicholas only pretended not to know who she was? Oh, dear Christ! If he had known and still taken her virginity...
"Are you all right, Moppet?” Julian asked softly.
Her stomach began to churn with denial. She bit her lip, refusing to believe Nicholas would use her in that way.
"But he couldn't have known I would arrive in London,” she added, desperately wishing to believe that Nicholas hadn't acted out of some sort of sick retribution.
"Your arrival in London, I am certain, was pure coincidence. He would have returned to the country had you not fallen into his lap."
She winced at her brother's words.
"Oh, dearest, I apologize. Pray, forgive me,” he begged, placing an arm around her shoulders. “The time at sea must have addled my brain, as well as impeded my manners."
An hour after his sister had pleaded fatigue, Julian undressed in his room when he recalled a conversation he'd had with his parents last fall. His mother insisted Megan was too lonely and decided that she would debut this spring, much to his father's consternation. He grimaced. He now had the great pleasure of seeing her launched.
Bloody hell! He hadn't the stomach for endless fetes and galas, balls, soirees and those devious little chits out to sink their meat hooks into him. But he must endure it. His parents would expect it of him.
Sleep eluded him, but by morning, he'd arrived at two decisions. First, he would see that Claremont had no further contact with his sister. Second, he would chaperone Megan to the various balls and parties that he deemed necessary. Once she was exposed to the many gentlemen anxious to be near her, she'd forget Claremont's very existence.
He was certain that Megan's inexperience drew her to the first handsome man to profess a few honeyed words. Within a couple of weeks of her coming-out, his sister would be wise enough to realize her naivete. In fact, he'd wager a goodly sum she'd be betrothed to another by mid-season.
The question of his parents’ whereabouts also besieged his mind during the night. He reasoned that they were not being held for ransom since there was no demand for payment. He couldn't imagine why they'd left in such haste, since they had already planned Megan's debut. And where the deuce had the driver, Sims, vanished to?
The next morning, Megan stifled a yawn as she came down to breakfast. She'd thought of pleading a stomachache, but Julian would probably send for the doctor and she would no doubt have to spend a week abed. She shuddered at the very idea.
When she entered the breakfast room, Julian watched her closely, his silver-grey eyes narrowed above the paper he held out before him. She filled her plate and sat, hoping he would go back to his reading.
No such luck.
"You look tired this morning."
Megan picked up her fork. “I'm fine, Julian."
The silence stretched out for several minutes. Megan moved the scrambled eggs around her plate, trying to think of something, anything other than Nicholas.
"I am quite certain it's dead. Feel free to eat it."
"I'm really not hungry."
"Well, I know something that will cheer you."
She looked up sharply. “What?"
"I am taking you to the finestmodistein London today,” Julian said as he folded his paper and set it aside.
His brows sprang up. Good Lord, Julian had actually thought she would be pleased with this bit of news? “For your presentation into Society."
She shook her head. “But I'm not going."
"Of course you are."
"How can I attend those galas knowing that Mother and Father could be stranded somewhere, starving to death?” The tears that sprang to her eyes were mostly real. She gave a sniff for good measure. Truly, she had no desire to be out in Society, around so many people all the time.
Julian rubbed each temple with his first two fingers. “Look, Megan, Mother and Father had already planned your coming-out and would want you to go. You know that upon their return, they will demand every detail of every party you attended. And if they return before the season is out, they will expect you to be ready. Either way, Moppet, we must have you fitted right away."
Megan opened her mouth to argue, but Julian was right, curse him. Mother and Father would expect her not to sit about and mourn their absence. But what had happened with Nicholas made her heart ache. How could she go out and have a good time when she was sure to see him? How could she act like nothing had happened between them?
Her brother rose from his seat and walked around Father's empty chair. He knelt beside her, taking her hands in his. “Don't fret, little one. They will be home soon, I assure you.” He kissed her forehead and brought her to her feet. She squelched a groan when he informed her that they would depart in a quarter of an hour. She would rather clean the privy every day for a year than get fitted for clothes she didn't want in order to attend a Season she didn't want. How would she get through this?
The journey to Madam Devereux's House of Fashion in Berkeley Square took an eternity as carriages, coaches and wagons crowded the street. But Megan didn't mind that half as much as being pinched, poked, and prodded by a dozen French women fitting her for what seemed a hundred gowns of varying styles and fabrics.
Julian paid a blasted fortune to have her dressed to the nines by the start of the season. Indeed, Madame Devereux was already aghast at having to fit another few gowns into her busy schedule when her brother withdrew that exorbitant block of notes from his pocket and insisted on an entire trousseau. Seeing this, though, the French woman plastered a smile across her painted lips and accepted.
As another pin found its mark in her flesh, she grimaced and vowed to get even with her dear brother. If he disliked balls and galas before, he'd certainly loathe them by the end of the Season.
That thought almost made her chuckle.
Finally, after four hours of torture, Julian assisted her back into the carriage. The return to the townhouse would be slower, she noted with a sigh, seeing even more wagons and people in the street than when they'd set out this morning.
She hadn't realized she'd fallen asleep until she roused when the carriage halted. Between the hectic day and lack of sleep the night before, exhaustion found her. The restorative tonic wasn't so restorative either. A footman assisted her from the tall vehicle.
As she reached the front door, she heard her name. Spinning around, she noticed Nicholas leading his horse toward them. “I would like to speak to you,” he stated.
Recalling the conversation with Julian last evening, she tamped back her burst of joy and lifted her chin. “There is nothing you have to say, Your Grace, that I wish to hear."
His eyes widened a fraction. “Meg?"
"Don't you dare call me that,” she said as the impact of his betrayal rushed back into her tattered heart.
He shook his head. “Why are you acting this way? Yesterday—"
"I learned the truth behind your intentions, Your Grace."
"I told you to stay away, Claremont,” Julian said from behind her. “Megan, go into the house."
Nicholas lifted his gaze to her brother. A look of comprehension, then cold disdain slid onto his face. “I have news of your parents,” he said.
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 7
Megan clapped a hand over her mouth. If she learned her parents had died, she would be sick.
Her brother glared murderously at Nicholas. “If this is one of your pathetic attempts—"
"Shut up, Julian, and mark me well,” Nicholas interrupted. “I know where they are, and why they left."
Her brother marched forward, stabbing a finger at Nicholas. “How is it that the infantry I have working on this haven't found a trace of their whereabouts, yet you have solved the entire matter?"
"They probably aren't searching hard enough, or in the right direction. Quit being a stubborn ass, and allow me to explain."
Megan slid her arm through her brother's bent elbow and tugged. “Julian, please,” she implored. “If he does have information about Mother and Father, we must listen."
A muscle leaped in Julian's jaw. “By God, Claremont, if I find this doesn't signify, I'll flog you until the fires of Hades nip at your heels.” Julian spun her around and led her into the house. “Go upstairs, dear sister, and lie down. We've had a busy day, and I know how tired you are."
She shook her head, all traces of her earlier exhaustion vanished. “I will hear what is said about Mother and Father."
"I'll not have you near that, that—"
"Julian,” she interrupted, “I want to hear what he has to say.” Gripping her hands together, she glanced at Nicholas. Her heart raced. She turned away, lest Julian got suspicious, and closed her eyes. Her brother could never know how deeply she felt for Nicholas. No one could ever know.
After several seconds, Julian heaved a sigh. He turned to Nicholas, standing in the doorway beside Wentworth. “Follow me, Claremont."
She hesitated as she entered the study. Nicholas stood beside one of the leather wingback chairs before the desk, waiting for her. His brow cocked, and his eyes dared her to take the seat beside him. She bit her lip, torn between wanting to fly into his arms and wanting to box his ears. Sit beside him, indeed! She pressed her lips together and marched toward the sofa beyond, ignoring the spurt of hurt in his eyes.
"Well, what of your news?” Julian asked from behind Father's massive oak desk.
Nicholas sat. “Your parents left aboard theWind Songthe day after they arrived here, heading to America."
She froze stiff as a walking stick.America?She felt faint. Her gazed snapped to her brother to gauge his reaction.
Julian leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Why would they do that? And pray, how did you learn of it?"
"I concluded that the duke and duchess would not have left Megan behind unless they felt you were in severe distress.” He shrugged. “I went to Kenbrook Shipping and learned from the attendant, Benny Wells, that Joseph had requested your schedule and the swiftest clipper available. He and your mother set sail immediately."
Relief struck her a precipitous blow and Megan took a deep breath. The vise around her heart lessened. She glanced at her brother, grateful to see his white-knuckled grip around the razor-sharp letter opener had loosened.
Julian leaned forward. “My schedule would have indicated that I was to arrive soon. Why didn't they wait?"
"Mr. Wells said he pointed out that very fact, but Joseph acknowledged the possession of a message to the contrary."
"Does Benny know who penned the message?"
Nicholas shook his head. “Your father didn't say."
Julian remained silent for several seconds, then his expression cleared. “It must have been the missive they received before leaving Kenbrook. Obviously made in error."
"Julian,” Megan asked, relieved beyond measure that her parents had been located, “wouldn't you have encountered theWind Songon your return from America?"
He glanced up and nodded. “Perhaps, but we altered our course. My first mate wished to make a stop at a port in the Caribbean.” Julian turned back to Nicholas, his face tightening in displeasure. “Anything else, Claremont?"
Nicholas cleared his throat. “Not regarding your parents, no."
A knock sounded just as Julian started to speak. “Enter,” he snapped.
"Forgive the intrusion, my lord, but the Duchess of Claremont and Earl of Stenwick have arrived and are waiting in the gold salon,” Wentworth announced.
Megan's heart pounded as she left the study. She walked beside her brother but felt Nicholas's eyes on her. She could feel the heat of his body, could smell his spicy scent. She closed her eyes and breathed him in. Flashes of their entwined bodies filled her head, his lips on hers, his hand over her bare breast. She pressed a hand over her mouth to keep from gasping and prayed her face wasn't as red as a cherry. Oh, God, what had she done?
Two footmen opened the doors as they approached. The dowager duchess started when she saw them approach. Nicholas's young uncle, Charles, sat frozen with two fingers buried in his ornate snuffbox, gaping at them. Not every day Nicholas and Julian stood together.
"Mother, Charles, I am surprised by your arrival,” Nicholas confessed. He embraced his mother, then shook his uncle's hand.
"Carson informed us where to find you. And—” She glanced at Julian, “—saints be praised, you and Julian are in the same room.” Her voice rang with pleasure. “Julian, I'm so pleased to see you! When did you arrive?"
"I have been back for two days, Your Grace,” her brother responded with a bow.
Megan turned to the tall, blond man beside the dowager. His blue eyes resembled his nephew's, but his hair was lighter and his frame much less powerful. “Are you feeling better, my lord?"
Lord Stenwick nodded. “Indeed, my lady, I feel much more the thing."
"I have some news,” the dowager announced. “The missing coachman, Sims, has been located. It seems that vagabonds burned the carriage, then knocked the poor man unconscious. Sims woke five days later in a peasant couple's home, confused and disoriented. Only yesterday was he able to recall his mission and make the journey to Kenbrook. And here—” The dowager handed Julian a slip of paper, “—is the note written from Joseph requesting my assistance in Megan's debut."
"May I?” Megan asked, reaching for the note. “The letter says nothing,” she said after examining the brief missive. “We learned more from your son."
"What does Megan mean?” the dowager asked.
Nicholas recounted his discussion with Mr. Wells, then Julian's conclusion that the missive had been made in error. Megan had to turn away when she realized how she stared. Dear Lord, at this rate, Julian would learn everything. Her feelings for Nicholas and what happened between them.
The dowager looked relieved. “At least we know that they are all right."
"Quite so. And someone was surely in a blunder regarding Julian. Probably a case of mistaken identity,” Lord Stenwick reasoned.
"But what to do now?” the dowager asked. “My dearest friends are still at sea looking for Julian."
"I'll send theSweet Sirenafter them,” her brother answered. The tension in Megan's shoulders eased. Her parents would be home soon.
"Thank goodness.” The dowager nodded. “When will you leave?"
"I merely intend to send my ship, madam, not board it. I must stay with Megan."
The lady smiled and shook her head. “You needn't worry about Megan. Nicholas and I will take excellent care of her."
"Your son will have nothing to do with my sister, Your Grace,” he retorted in a low, acrimonious voice.
Megan cringed, close to tears. Not see Nicholas? She pressed her lips together and willed the wetness gathering in her eyes away.
The dowager looked startled. “Yes, of course. If that is your wish."
Nicholas cursed the fates that had brought his mother so soon. He longed to stay with Megan, but he'd departed the Kenbrook house with his mother and uncle. Every step further away from her tore at him.
"Please come in, Mother. Will you and Charles be staying the night?” he asked as Carson opened the front door.
"I don't know, Nicholas. It shall depend on how long it takes you to explain what you've done.” With an I-know-you've-misbehaved expression, she took her brother's arm and entered the townhouse.
Nicholas winced, then followed them inside. Of a sudden, he knew how King Louis felt as he walked to the guillotine.
He sat beside his mother on the sofa as Charles took the seat opposite, and waited until Carson left the drawing room. He told them about his encounter with Megan at the stream and mistaking her for a commoner. Then he explained his shock at finding the same girl occupying one of his guestrooms over a sennight later, and his belief that she'd lied about being his ward.
His mother gasped. “Oh, Nicholas, please tell me you didn't have Megan removed from your house?"
"No, Mother. That's not quite what happened."
"Then, darling, what did you do?"
"I kissed her...and...well...it just happened,” he sputtered.
Her smile slipped. “Whatjust happened?"
Charles coughed, and Nicholas was certain it wasn't because of his recent illness.
He sighed, feeling as if he were still in short coats about to receive a good trimming from his mother. Only the lack of short coats had changed.
His mother cleared her throat. A warning, that. It was time to finish his confession. “We, uh, that is... she..."
Her hand flew to her throat and her eyes grew large and round. “Oh, Nicholas. Surely you didn't seduce that sweet, young girl?"
"She didn't stop...” He trailed off at his mother's scathing glare.
"Megan was taking laudanum to relieve the pain from a fall and to ease the distress of her parents’ sudden departure.” She sighed hard. “Dear Christ, Nicholas, I am certain the poor darling was sedated at the time."
He bowed his head in humiliation. He was a cad, a rakehell. Worse than Jeremy, if such a thing existed. What kind of gentleman ruined a lady? Not just any lady. The Duke of Kenbrook's only daughter. God, he felt sick. “I had no idea,” he admitted to the tips of his polished Hessians. With a sigh, he straightened and fused his gaze with his mother's. “My brain was swimming in gin, madam,” he said with remorse. “And I truly thought she was a commoner."
Her eyes flashed. “So that validated your behavior?"
"No,” he answered, rubbing his sore neck. Be damned, he thought Megan had been fully aware of her actions. God, if only he had known.
The clock rang out the hour, sounding more like a death knell in the strained silence. Nicholas shifted in his seat and waited. He waited for her to come to the only conclusion left to him.
"Nicholas, you do realize that you must marry the girl."
"It's not I who oppose marriage, Mother."
"I understand why Megan would resist. I trust you need only to convince her that your proposal is genuine and not out of obligation."
He gave his head a small shake, wondering how the deuce his mother knew. He shouldn't be surprised. She could always guess what he was feeling. “Mother, it's not that simple. There is a tremendous factor opposing this union, not including Megan."
"And what is that?"
She clanked her cup hard against the saucer. “Oh, dear."
Megan stood before her sitting room windows viewing the decorative garden suffused in moonlight, thinking of Nicholas. Again. Would she ever get him out of her mind? A slight rap sounded and she turned, relieved to focus her attention elsewhere. “Enter."
"Moppet, why haven't you retired? It's late. Another sleepless night will do you no good."
She ignored Julian's question. “Where have you been? I didn't think you would be gone so long."
"I wanted to have Stuart Williams depart after Mother and Father on the morrow."
She closed her eyes in relief. “Oh, Jules, that's wonderful.” As soon as her parents returned, she'd convince them that she had no need to cut a dash amongst theton—rather, she would like to remain at Kenbrook. She was certain she could persuade her father with ease. Her mother would be difficult. And Megan needed to keep what had happened with Nicholas a secret from her parents at all costs. She clenched her hands together. That would be the hardest feat of all. She desperately wanted to exorcise all feeling for Nicholas, but her feelings could not be plucked away like chicken feathers.
"My clipper is under repair and cannot leave right now,” Julian said. “However, I have sent another ship after them. Mother and Father will return before long, my darling sister."
"They must come home soon, Julian. They must,” she whispered. She couldn't stand the thought of having to stay in London to attend those ridiculous socials. And she'd never have the ability to respond indifferently in Nicholas's presence. She pressed a hand to her stomach. The mere thought made her sick.
Julian gathered her in his arms and tucked her under his chin. “All things resolve as they should, Moppet."
She heaved a sigh against his silk shirt. “Let us return to Kenbrook, Julian. Truly, I have no desire for a season."
Her brother gave a short laugh. “Now, dearest, think of what Society would believe if we returned without you being betrothed. Everyone would be convinced you had bad teeth or somesuch,” he teased.
Megan frowned. “I do not wish to marry."
She pulled out of his embrace. “Ever,” she said.
She backed away, clenching her hands into fists. “Don't you dare tell me that that is what a lady is supposed to do, Julian, or I swear I'll knock a few teeth out of your head."
"Damn it, Julian, I'm serious."
"A lady ought not to swear."
"Ohhh, go to Bath!"
"I'm just trying to help you,” Julian said with laughter in his eyes.
"If you really wanted to help me,” she said, “we would leave for Kenbrook at first light."
He sighed and shook his head. “Mother and Father wish you here. Besides, I am certain you will have a grand time and make many friends."
"I'd rather go home,” she grumbled.
The teasing light dwindled from Julian's eyes and a frown came to his lips. “Has something happened?” he asked in a low, lethal tone.
She smoothed her dress. “Of course not."
Julian studied her for several seconds. She wanted to squirm.He must not find out. He must not.“Then we are agreed?"
Taking a deep breath, she nodded. She had no choice. “Good, now get some rest.” Julian walked to the door. “I'm taking you to Drury Lane and then to dinner at Clarendon's tomorrow."
As the door closed, she turned back to the windows. How was she going to attend all those...? Her thoughts halted as a large shape moved in the garden below. She squinted at the silvery tree trunks and the large bench below. Nothing moved. Had someone been out there?
After a few more minutes of scanning the moonlit garden, she turned away. She must have imagined it.
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 8
Megan's knees wobbled as she entered the drawing room. “Hello, Your Grace."
"Hello, dear. I pray I'm not intruding?” the dowager asked.
"Not at all,” she answered. “How is Lord Charles?"
"Much better, indeed. The cough has completely left him now."
"That is wonderful. Would you like some tea?"
The dowager nodded. The honey-colored strands of her neat twist glimmered with the regal movement. Megan wished one day she'd be that elegant. “That would be most welcome. Have you any news of your parents?"
"As a matter of fact, I do,” she replied as she engaged the pull to signal for refreshments. She explained what Julian had told her the previous evening.
"I daresay, I am grateful to know they shall return soon."
The tea arrived and she poured a cup for each of them, aching to inquire about Nicholas. But she found the strength to withhold the words. Why did he always have to weave into her thoughts? She did not wish to love him.
Her hand hovered over her teacup. Love him?
"How are you, my dear?"
A tremor went through her and she took a sip of tea to hide her reaction. “I am doing very well, thank you,” she said as her gaze lowered to the string of pearls around the duchess’ neck.
"I am truly glad to hear that. Megan, I've also come to extend an invitation. Nicholas and I would like you and Julian to dine with us tonight."
Oh, how Megan wanted to say yes. But Julian would never agree. She signed. “I apologize, Your Grace, but I must decline. Julian and I are having dinner out after we attend the theater this evening."
Disappointment flitted into the dowager's eyes. “Perhaps another time?"
Megan watched the dowager leave, her heart heavy. She and Nicholas would never be together. Not only were he and Julian enemies, Megan would never be elegant and stylish. She was not at all what a duchess should be. She liked to ride horses, not serve cucumber sandwiches in the drawing room. She turned from the window, swiping the tears from her cheeks. She had no future with him.
He gulped down his drink. Megan's brother shouldn't have arrived so soon! He slammed his glass on the table. This destroyed his plan. Closing his eyes, he wondered how he would keep the creditors away this week. They were banging on his door at all hours.
With a sigh, he poured another drink and settled in the chair before his desk. He glared at the stack of unpaid bills and took out some paper. One more time, the plan had to be altered. He wouldn't be able to take Megan with her brother so near. He drained his glass. He was running short of time. Kenbrook would be back soon.
That evening, Nicholas sat in his plush, red velvet theater seat, cursing his foul luck. He should not have halted at Jeremy's house earlier. An enormous mistake, that. Jeremy's sister was there and had invited herself when she learned that he was attending the theater alone. Phyllis Longwell Granger was an attractive widow, two years younger than he and a diligent flirt. Not even her brief marriage had stopped her from pursuing him. But Nicholas never felt any interest in her. Especially since he'd discovered Megan. And he would have no one else.
He anxiously waited for Megan's appearance, but the chattering magpie seated next to him kept interrupting. He gnashed his teeth when she spoke again.
"I adore Shakespeare. It was good of you to invite me,” Phyllis cooed as she touched his leg for the third time in as many minutes.
"Yes, well, I'm glad you were available to come on such short notice.” He doubted she would pick up on the sarcasm.
She didn't. “Actually, Nicky,” she whispered loudly, “I cancelled Lord Bradbury's invitation for this evening in order to attend with you.” She smiled up at him in bald suggestion. He sighed inwardly, wishing he'd never brought the chit along.
Phyllis opened her mouth to speak yet again, but stopped on a gasp. Similar noises sounded from others within the theater. After several seconds of total silence, loud chattering broke out. The hairs on the back of his neck rose and his stomach tumbled over. Most of the audience was focused on the Kenbrook box with eyes raised and mouths agape. When he found Megan standing there, his heart stopped in his chest. He couldn't breathe. Although he had glimpsed her beauty many times before, he never saw her like this. Dressed in a shimmering silver and amethyst evening gown, she was more than exquisite. Even from this distance he could see her pearly skin unmarred by a single flaw. Her shining, raven-black hair had been arranged in several barrel curls at the back of her head. His eyes shifted to her lips and he felt a jolt of lust so poignant it hurt. How he wished to kiss those full, cherry lips until he no longer craved the sweetness of her taste. Until he no longer wanted to feel her silky skin or hear the sound of her voice in his ear. Until he closed his eyes and wasn't haunted by visions of her.
"Isn't that Marquess of Amersleigh, Lord Julian Westland? But who is the girl?"
Hearing the jealousy in Phyllis's voice, he wrenched his gaze away and cleared his throat. “Yes, that's Amersleigh, and he's escorting his sister, Lady Megan."
"Oh, that's right. I had heard that she was to be launched this season, but I must say, I hadn't realized she was so..."
"Absolutely exquisite,” he finished, unable to prevent the words from slipping past his lips.
She turned to him, fury sparking in her hazel eyes. “I just saw Marian Billingsly.” A blatant lie, he knew. “Since there is time before curtain rise, I must say hello. I'll return shortly."
"Phyllis...” Nicholas wanted to apologize for being rude, but she was already gone.
Megan could not keep from trembling. Everyone was staring at her. She fumbled with her fan, not at all certain what to do with the blasted thing. Oh, how she wished she had paid more attention to instruction. Her mind had no doubt been filled with sneaking from the house to ride Aramis. She gave up trying to open the fan and smoothed out a wrinkle in her dress. She chanced a peek at the audience. Thousands of eyes still on her. How she wished she were in breeches riding one of her horses rather than wearing a mountain of silk and having everyone gawk at her so.
"If I didn't know any better, Moppet,” Julian said from his seat beside her, “I would think you were the one appearing on stage tonight. Why the nerves, love?"
"Everyone is staring at me, Julian,” she whispered.
He chuckled and shook his head. “Oh, sweetling, do you not realize how beautiful you are?"
"Fair, perhaps, but not beautiful.” Julian started to laugh, and she demanded, “What's so amusing?"
He wiped his eyes. “I find it difficult to believe that you look into a mirror every day, yet miss your own reflection. Dear sister, you are by far the loveliest lady here. Probably anywhere. And these poor souls are seeing that for themselves."
"Oh, Jules, you're biased.” She dismissed his compliment with a wave of her hand.
A knock sounded, and the doorman announced a visitor.
She rose as an attractive man about Julian's age, with dark hair and eyes, entered the small chamber. He wore a wide smile.
"Julian, it's been a while, how are you?” His twinkling eyes slid to her. “And who is your beautiful companion?"
"Hello, Michael. I was just thinking that you or Jeremy would be the first to dash up here,” Julian said as he shook his friend's hand.
Michael laughed. “Jeremy isn't here. But I daresay, he will be regretting that decision on the morrow."
Julian made the introduction. “This lovely lady is my dear sister, Lady Megan Westland. Megan, this is an old friend of mine, Lord Michael Farrell, the Earl of Bentwood."
"Sister?” the earl asked in surprise. “It is indeed a pleasure, my lady.” He scooped up her hand and settled a kiss on her satin-clad knuckles.
His hand was warm in hers. Megan watched him place a kiss on her glove, expecting to feel something. No, nothing. Would Nicholas be the only one to ever evoke her feelings? “As it is for me, my lord."
Another knock sounded, and soon people filled the tiny box. Megan was pressed against the wall, finding it difficult to draw in air. The noise was unbearable. Strange men grabbed her hand and kissed her knuckles. The room grew stifling hot. She had to escape. “Julian. I feel a few pins coming loose,” she lied, her voice soft so the others couldn't hear. “I must visit the ladies’ retiring room. I'll return in a few minutes."
"Give me another moment, and I'll escort you,” he replied.
"It's just down the hall. I shan't be overlong, really,” she insisted.
He glanced around, then turned back to her. “As you will, Megan, but hurry back."
She slipped from the box with a sigh of relief and began to walk down the empty corridor. After several steps, someone grabbed her from behind and hauled her into the adjacent box. She spun around to face her abductor—about to release a tirade sure to leave mortal wounds—but stopped short when she saw—
"Nicholas,” she rasped in surprise.
"Hello, Meg. By God, you look lovely."
His husky voice weakened her knees. She stumbled back a step. “Release me at once, Your Grace,” she demanded, seeing that he was leaning against the only door out.
"I shall in another moment. Just let me look at you."
She glanced about the vacant box, noticing all but one lamp extinguished and the front curtain lowered. At least no one would see them alone together. Alone. Together. She swallowed hard. “Is this your box?"
He shook his head. “It belongs to Jeremy Longwell, the Marquess of Fielding. And worry not, he isn't to attend tonight. Forgive me, love, but I had to see you again."
She crossed her arms to expel the sensations his nearness caused. Indeed, she did not like desiring a kiss from the very man she was trying not to love. “You have two minutes, Your Grace."
He pursed his lips. “My name is Nicholas."
"One minute, fifty seconds.” She paused. “Your Grace."
He sighed. “I am truly sorry for the despicable things I said and did to you. My actions were beyond horrid.” He paused and closed his eyes briefly. “Sweet Meg, I truly wished I had known you were Kenbrook's daughter."
She had to grit her teeth to keep from reaching out to him. “I am finding it difficult to believe that you didn't recognize me, Your Grace,” she admonished. “I know you saw me as a child."
"Truly, I'd forgotten Julian had a sister,” he answered without hesitation.
Megan snorted in disbelief and looked away.
He took a step forward and nudged her chin to face him. “It's true. I've spent years trying to forget anything and everything about Julian Westland. And that included a shy little sister who refused to stay in the room long enough for me to get a proper look.” His finger traced her brow, then moved over her cheek and stopped when he reached her lips.
She shivered, afraid he would kiss her, afraid he wouldn't. The air charged between them. All she had to do was move forward. His eyes begged for the kiss.
She took a hasty step back and his hand fell away. She couldn't think when he touched her. “Are you denying that you used me to get even with Julian for what you believe he did to Emily Wakefield?” She tried desperately to hold on to the anger seeping away.
His breath caught. “Is that what Julian has made you to believe? My God, Megan, no wonder you're so bloody upset."
"Are you denying it?"
"Of course, I deny it. That is the most absurd thing I've ever heard,” he spat out.
Megan bit her lip. Could she have been wrong? “It's not so absurd when you think about it,” she said quietly.
"Meg, I am telling you the truth.” He looked steadily into her eyes. Then, without warning, he pulled her into his arms and dropped his mouth down over hers.
Surprise kept her still for a second, then she began to struggle. She continued to resist until his sliding lips melted her. Her willpower evaporated. Nothing mattered but the taste of him and the feel of his velvety tongue gliding against hers. She had to respond or die of longing.
She released the handfuls of his black coat and wound her arms around his neck. She melted against him and returned his scorching kisses. Her breasts pressed against his solid chest. She ached for him to touch her bare skin. For him to pull off the blasted gown she wore and have his way with her.
He lifted his head, his eyes intense. “Meg, you are everything to me, and I could never use you as Julian has suggested. If that were true, why do I still want you so desperately? Why haven't I discarded you? Why can't I remove you from my mind? My heart?” He lowered his head to capture her mouth again, but an impatient knock sounded behind them.
"Nicky, are you in there? The play is about to begin."
He cursed under his breath.
"Nicky?” Megan mouthed as anger bloomed within her chest. If she was all he thought about, then why was a woman outside that door waiting for him? And calling him Nicky?
"Nicky, darling, where are you?” After several seconds, the woman stomped away.
"You filthy swine! I cannot believe I almost trusted you,” she hissed.
As she moved toward the door, he grabbed her arm and spun her around. “I have never lied to you, Megan. Phyllis is a friend who invited herself along tonight. That is all."
"Let me go."
"Never,” he replied before kissing her again.
Incensed, Megan drew back and slapped him. She jerked away from the duke and yanked open the door. She flew from the room and didn't stop until she reached her family's box.
"There you are, Moppet. I was about to come looking for you,” her brother said. His brows crashed together. “Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine.” She paused, trying to catch her breath. “I had to hurry because I didn't wish to miss the opening."
He studied her a moment, then said, “I hope you don't mind, but Michael will be joining us tonight."
She widened her smile when she noticed the earl. Everyone else had departed. “Of course I don't mind.” Taking her seat between the two men, she tried hard to squelch Nicholas and his searing kiss from her mind. As the curtain on stage rose, the actors drew her attention in their colorful and elaborate costumes. And soon, the fascinating dialogue ofA Midsummer Night's Dreamenthralled her.
Julian wanted to leave after the intermission, but she wouldn't hear of it. She wished to stay and experience every minute of her first theater. However, when the play ended and everyone crowded in the foyer, she realized the wisdom in her brother's desire to leave sooner. Many halted them for an introduction. The crowd swelled in her direction. She shuffled back a few steps. Nicholas could be in there somewhere.
"You look tired, sweet. Shall we leave?” Julian asked after dozens of introductions.
She halted mid-yawn. “I'm sorry."
His eyes softened. “Don't apologize, Moppet. Michael, we must take our leave."
The earl's face fell. “So soon?"
"My sister is not used to keeping such late hours."
"I understand. However, I have one request before you go. Could I be permitted the first dance at Huntington's masque?"
"Why, Michael,” Julian joked, “I could not possibly accept. No doubt, you'd step all over my toes."
She smothered a laugh.
With a chuckle, her brother turned to her. “What do you think, Moppet? Do you want to dance with this old cad?"
"It would be a pleasure, Lord Bentwood,” she answered, then smiled.
His frown melted into a saucy grin. “Believe me, Lady Westland, the pleasure will be entirely mine,” he said, and bade them farewell.
Thank goodness Julian had decided to return her home instead of having dinner at the opulent hotel. How did these people keep such late hours? Then she recalled that they usually didn't rise until after noon. She shook her head. Mornings were the best time of day.
The horses trotted along the cobblestones in a soothing rhythm. She relaxed against the seat and closed her eyes. What a long day. The clip-clop and gentle sway of the carriage lulled her to sleep. Sounds fell away.
The coachman shouted out. The horses whinnied in fright and surged forward in an uncontrolled frenzy through the streets.
She screamed in alarm and fell against the back of the carriage. A loud buzz sounded in her ears. Julian helped her straighten, and she nodded when he asked if she were unharmed. The vehicle jostled dangerously, and her fear mounted. Julian tightened his grip on her with one hand, and grabbed the leather strap above the window with the other. She glanced out. The lit street lamps sped by, almost blurring together. Dear God, they were going to crash!
Just as her brother released her and started to crawl out of the window, a lone rider pulled alongside the horses. The man leaned over and managed to grab the reins. He spoke soothingly to the animals until they slowed, then stopped.
Julian opened the carriage door with a bang and flew out. “Are you all right, Megan?"
She pressed a hand to her thundering heart and nodded.
He helped her down. She followed her brother toward their savior as the man dismounted.
"My most heartfelt thanks, sir. How may I repay you? Just name the price, and it is yours,” Julian said to the gentleman's back.
The man turned slowly and said, “Permission to marry your sister will do quite nicely."
"Nicholas,” she gasped, relieved beyond measure to see him standing there.
He stepped forward, his brows drawn. “Are you all right, love?” he asked, cupping her cheek in the palm of his right hand.
She wanted to crawl into his arms and stay there forever.
"Take your bloody hands off of my sister, Claremont."
Nicholas lifted his head, anger building in his eyes. She took a quick step back so his hand fell away.
A groan sounded from the driver's seat of the carriage. Julian turned and scrambled up to the seat. “Perkins, are you all right? My God, you're bleeding, man."
"Bleeding?” she repeated. “How bad is it, Julian?"
"He's got a nasty wound on his head. Can you hear me, Perkins?"
Nicholas climbed the other side. “Grab him carefully under the arms, Julian,” he directed, lifting Perkins by the legs. “Now let's get him down."
They lowered the injured coachman to the ground, and she swallowed at the sight of so much blood covering the man's face.
The poor fellow winced. “Just be still, you'll be all right,” Julian said.
Julian removed his handkerchief and placed it over the man's injury, but blood quickly drenched the fabric. She gripped her hands together. As her brother reached into his pocket for another handkerchief, Nicholas held out a pristine piece of white linen. “Here, use this,” he said. “I'll fetch a doctor."
He turned to her, his eyes troubled. “Will you be all right?"
"Yes. Now do hurry. Perkins looks dreadful,” she replied in a hushed tone so that the man wouldn't hear her. But as she glanced back at the dear old coachman, she noticed that he had already lost consciousness.
Nicholas gave a curt nod, then jumped onto his horse.
Megan watched him leave. Nicholas had saved them. She drew her shawl tightly around her shoulders. He had risked his own life for theirs. Her heart flooded with joy. Nicholas had saved her and Julian and Perkins.
But how did he just happen on them like that? That meant Nicholas had been following them. But why? Her heart leaped. Could he actually care about her?
She looked back in the direction he had gone.Please, let the answer be yes.
After assisting Julian with the injured servant, Nicholas glanced around the hall, wondering where Megan had gone. He had to see her again, to try and convince her that—
"Go home now, Claremont,” Julian said, joining him in the hallway.
"No. We need to discuss my betrothal to Megan. I am most serious about marrying her."
Julian stood silent for a moment, his silver-grey eyes assessing, calculating. “We shall discuss this in the study."
Nicholas followed Julian into the room. Settling into the butter-soft leather, he watched his former friend take the seat behind the desk. What was the man up to?
"I know not what sort of callous game you're playing with my sister, Claremont, but I do not like it,” Julian snarled into the silence.
Nicholas splayed his hands on the polished desk and leaned forward. Looking steadily into those hostile eyes, he said, “This is no game, Julian. I mean to marry her."
"The hell you say. Perhaps you mean to commit to a betrothal, then leave her at the altar once your wedding day arrives,” Julian said, his voice rising. “Or, more accurately, you wish to get her with child, then leave her like you thought I did years ago to Emily Wakefield."
He balled his hands into fists. “Damn you, Julian, is it so difficult to believe that this has nothing whatever to do with Emily?” He took a deep breath, reining in the fury trying to overtake him, and lowered his voice. “This is not some sort of game or plan for revenge."
Julian did not respond for several minutes. Nicholas could read nothing in the man's expression but anger. Finally, Julian leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “From what I have learned tonight, Megan will have no difficulty finding a husband. In fact, there were seven offers this evening alone."
It took every ounce of strength he possessed not to rise up out of his chair and lunge across the desk. “Curse your black soul, Julian. You cannot do this,” he said.
Julian's brow cocked up. “I daresay I can, Claremont. I am her guardian. Megan hasn't given me any indication she wishes to marry you."
As Nicholas listened, his grip tightened on the chair arms.
"In fact,” the scoundrel continued, his lips pulling into a grin, “I think Bentwood has captured her attention."
A bloody lie,Nicholas thought.
Julian leaned back in his chair. Nicholas caught a glimpse of disappointment. So, that was the bastard's game. Nicholas relaxed, his fingers throbbing from having dug into the leather so long. Julian had wanted him to lunge forward, had been waiting for him. Well, he'd restrain the urge to rearrange Julian's face even if it killed him.
"I have an idea. One that may solve everything,” Julian said.
"I'm listening,” he prompted.
"Leave Megan completely alone until she decides on a husband."
"What?” he roared. He could no more stop the sun from rising in the morn.
"You heard me. Do not attempt to see or talk to her, by any means. And if the two of you were meant to be together, you will."
"If I do stay away from her, and she chooses to marry me, you will allow it?"
"Yes.” Julian answered with reluctance, as if it pained him.
"There is something else.” He leaned forward. He would walk the fires of hell if it meant he could marry Megan, but this agreement had to be fair.
"And what would that be?"
"Quit trying to turn her against me,” he bellowed.
"I've only spoken the truth to her."
He grunted. “No, just what you believe is the truth. You must allow her to discern things for herself."
After several seconds of silent deliberation, Julian nodded. “Now, do you agree to these terms?"
"Not just yet, Amersleigh.” He frantically worked his mind for any advantages.
Julian heaved a sigh. “Now what?"
He chewed his lip.Think, man, think.His heart knocked so hard against his chest that he could hardly form a thought. “If she desires to see me, I will not refuse her,” he said.
After a lengthy hesitation, Julian said, “Fine, but she is to know nothing at all of this agreement, or it is ended. I wish to be certain her decision is genuine. Do we have an understanding?"
The door opened and Megan walked into the room, stemming Julian's words. Nicholas rose from his chair and feasted his eyes on her loveliness, wanting to pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless. What was it about this young woman that he could not live without?
"I thought you had retired for the evening, Megan,” Julian said.
Megan's heart quivered at the sight of Nicholas standing there dressed in evening black, looking far more handsome that he ought. Those intense feelings she'd harbored for him since finding his portrait all those years ago rushed back. Forcing her gaze away, she turned to her brother, realizing that he and Nicholas had been speaking without exchanging a round of punches. Incredible. Then she recalled her brother's words. “I was assisting Dr. Kellerman."
"How is Perkins?” her brother asked, rounding the desk to stand before her.
She cleared her throat, suddenly gone dry. “He needed to be stitched, but is doing much better."
"Did he regain consciousness? Was he able to explain what had happened?"
"Perkins said a man darted across the road, scaring the horses. When they reared up, he hit his head."
"A man? Did Perkins recognize him?"
"No. It was too dark,” Megan said.
Nicholas stepped forward. “Lady Megan, may I have a word with you?"
She opened her mouth, but Julian answered first. “No, Claremont, you may not. Now leave here before I have you forcefully removed."
Nicholas took another step forward, his blue eyes snapping with fury.
Megan's heart thundered with alarm. She eased into the narrow distance separating the two men. “Cease this madness, both of you.” She turned to Nicholas. “I think it would be best if you left now."
He lowered his gaze, the rage subsiding from his features. “Please, I must speak with you first, Meg,” he implored softly. “It is important."
"I won't have it, Claremont,” her brother barked.
Noticing a glimmer in Nicholas's eyes, something almost beseeching, she turned to her brother. “Give us a few minutes to talk, Jules."
Julian threw up his hands. “All right, a few minutes. But that is all.” He glanced over her head and addressed Nicholas. “And you will not lay one finger on my sister. I will be right outside that door. All she has to do is make one questionable sound and I'll be on you in a trice.” He strode from the room with military stiffness.
Warily, she turned back to Nicholas.
"Thank you, Meg,” he said, moving toward her.
She took a step back to distance her body from his. “Whatever you have to say, do it fast,” she said as her bottom hit against the desk.
"I wish you to be my wife.” He advanced another step so that he stood mere inches from her. “We must marry."
"That is close enough,” she snapped.
Must. He didn't want to marry her. He merely felt obligated. Oh, God, why couldn't he love her? She wanted that above anything. But his cold arrangement had nothing to do with love. She squared her shoulders. “So,” she sneered, trying to bury her pain, “your proposal has changed from mistress to wife?"
He jerked back as though he'd been struck. “Megan, I have apologized. What more can I do? Name anything and it shall be done."
Just love me as much as I love you.Her gaze skidded away to focus on the leather-bound books behind him. “There is nothing you can do."
"Will you at least allow me to try?” He paused to graze her cheek with his fingertips. “Say you'll marry me, Meg,” he insisted.
As his warm skin sent tingling sparks through her body, pooling in the pit of her stomach, confusion enveloped her. She wanted desperately to take what he offered, but she held back. Being a duchess meant being the perfect lady, like her mother. Megan was not the perfect lady. She was anything but the perfect lady.
The door crashed open, jarring Megan from the spell Nicholas had woven around her. “Good night, Claremont,” Julian said.
"Let me know what you decide.” Nicholas held her gaze for a moment, then spun around and was gone.
Megan stared at the empty doorway for several seconds. Could it be possible he truly wanted to marry her, even with all her faults? She bit her lip, tamping back her soaring hopes. Nicholas's future words and actions would reveal his true feelings. And since she knew with last week's menses that she didn't carry his child, there was no rush to the altar.
There was plenty of time for him to prove the sincerity of his proposal. If, indeed, he was sincere at all.
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 9
One week after the carriage incident, Megan plodded into the dining room. She'd had another sleepless night, identical to the six before. Not even the beautiful new gowns that arrived daily from the fashion house had improved her mood. And it was all Nicholas's fault, curse him.
Just seven short days ago, he'd been adamant about her becoming his wife, and now...nothing. She hadn't heard one blasted word from the man. He hadn't even bothered to pen a note.
She sighed and moved to the sideboard. Without filling her plate from the extensive fare offered, she poured a cup of tea from the silver pot and sat in her chair. Unaware of Julian's steel-grey eyes watching her from above his paper, she wrapped her chilled hands around the hot teacup and stared into the dark, steamy liquid.
"Megan, you must eat or none of your new gowns will fit,” Julian said as he folded his newspaper and set it aside.
"I'll eat when I'm hungry. How is Perkins this morning?"
He sighed. “He is angry that I won't allow him to return to work until his stitches come out in a couple of days."
"Good,” she breathed, grateful the dear man was almost recovered. She glanced down and watched the steam rise from her cup. “I think I'll take a stroll in the park today.” Anything to keep from dwelling on Nicholas.
"I'm sorry, Moppet, but I must go to the dock and inspect the clipper's progress."
"Julian, will you please stop calling me that? I am not a child."
He raised his brows at her request, but didn't agree to it. “I shan't be overlong. Eat something,” he said instead, then kissed her forehead and departed.
She abhorred the idea of spending another day alone dwelling on that insufferable man. How she wished she could ride her horses. Then she recalled that Julian didn't say she couldn't go, just thathecouldn't. She told Wentworth to have the carriage brought around.
She held her face up to the sunshine after she alighted from the vehicle, followed by her maid disguised as a duenna. It was necessary that Society not realize Lucy's identity since a maid was not a proper escort. But she refused to remain indoors another day. She needed a distraction from Nicholas like she needed air.
Walking along the path to the park, she smiled in admiration of the colorful flowers in bloom. They reminded her of her mother's gardens at Kenbrook, and a wave of sadness threatened her. She shook her head, forcing back the looming depression. Today, she decided, she would not be sad.
Unaware of the many appreciative male eyes that followed her, she sat on a bench to watch a group of children play. Her maid took the seat beside her and began to chatter about their lovely surroundings.
"What a lovely rose garden, my lady. Oh, look at the statue. Is that marble?"
She groaned inwardly. If only she could have a few moments to herself... “Lucy, didn't you say just yesterday how you needed to visit the apothecary and find a treatment for your mother's swelling?"
"Oh, yes, my lady."
She kept her eyes fixed on the children. “Well then, why don't you go now? I'll remain here and wait for you."
"But Lady Megan, I could not possibly leave you alone."
She smiled in reassurance. “I shall be quite safe. Look at all the children. Were it not safe, would they be allowed to play thus?” She waved a hand toward them as they rolled upon the grass and tackled one another.
"I guess not,” her maid answered.
"I am certain you shan't be but a few minutes. Have Hanson escort you in the carriage."
"Are you sure, my lady?"
"Yes, Lucy, now off with you. I shall be perfectly safe during your short absence."
"Well...all right. And thank you, Lady Megan,” Lucy said breathlessly, her excitement at being taken somewhere in the grand ducal conveyance evident. Servants were rarely allowed the use of such vehicles.
"Would you mind if I took the seat beside you?” asked a voice.
She looked up to find a pretty girl standing before the bench. “Please do,” she answered.
The girl sat, trying a little too hard to be ladylike. “I'm Evelyn Thornton, but everyone calls me Evie. And you must be Megan Westland,” Evie said as she opened her parasol against the bright sun.
"Why, yes I am. How did you know?"
"Everyone has been talking about you,” Evie answered. She laughed. “You certainly made an impression at the theater, from what I hear."
She felt her cheeks grow warm. “I did?"
"Absolutely. My brother, Ash, was there and couldn't stop talking about you. I had no idea how accurate he was in his description. My dear, you are stunning,” Evie said, her soft brown eyes swimming with merriment.
Megan ducked her head, a little embarrassed. “Thank you.” Megan learned that Evie celebrated her twentieth birthday two months ago. Her only sibling was her brother, Ash, older by six years. Upon the sudden death of their father five years ago, he became the Earl of Ashton and her guardian.
"Why aren't you married, Evie?"
Pain filled Evie's liquid brown eyes. “I was betrothed once, but he cried off,” she answered.
Crossing her arms, Megan expelled an indignant huff. “Well, in my opinion, he was a damn fool."
When Evie spun around sharply, Megan popped a hand over her mouth. She prayed she hadn't offended her new friend with her bluntness. She was ever driving her parents crazed with her unladylike ways.
Evie threw her head back and laughed.
Megan removed her hand, pleased and a little surprised by Evie's laughter. Then she joined in and they laughed so long, tears streamed down their faces.
"Oh, my, I haven't laughed this hard in...I don't think I have ever laughed this hard,” Evie said as she wiped the tears from her cheeks.
"I haven't either.” Then she sobered, recalling why she had no cause for laughter lately.
Evie's hand moved over hers. “What is it?"
She found herself telling of her parents’ hasty departure, which still caused her great concern. But she said nothing of Nicholas.
"That's terrible, Megan. Well, it's no wonder I can feel your sadness. However, they shall be here soon,” her friend said in a soothing tone.
"Yes, soon,” she repeated, and a shiver ran through her. Her parents could learn what had happened between her and Nicholas. Especially after Julian's mention of the marriage offer.
With a sigh, she chose a more cheerful topic. “Are you attending Almack's tomorrow?"
Evie looked aghast for a moment, then shook her head.
"Why not?” she asked.
"I did not receive a voucher,” her new friend answered while smoothing non-existent wrinkles from her dress.
She drew her brows together. “I don't understand."
After a moment of silence, Evie looked up. Tears glistened in her eyes. “I am not acceptable."
"Why? Because of your broken betrothal?"
"Yes,” Evie whispered, her gaze skidding away.
"Well then, it will be my pleasure to turn down Lady Jersey's invitation. I suddenly find Almack's not acceptable."
With a gasp, Evie swiveled back around. “Oh, Megan, I didn't mean for you..."
Smiling, she patted Evie's hand. “I know you didn't."
Evie's eyes filled with more tears. “That's the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me,” she said and pulled a frilly piece of linen from her bag. She gave a sniff and scrubbed the wetness from her cheeks. Then she straightened and asked, “What about Huntington's masque? Are you attending that?"
Evie nodded. “Is your brother escorting you?"
"Yes. And who might your escort be for the night?"
"Usually, I would say Aunt Agnes. But I have a feeling that my brother will suddenly be delighted to perform the task."
They chatted for a while longer before she heard Evie exclaim that she had left her aunt asleep in the carriage and needed to return for her.
"Would you like to come?” Evie invited.
Megan shook her head with reluctance. “No, I'm waiting for my, uh, duenna to return with the carriage. You go. I'll see you at Huntington's,” she replied, then bade good day to her new friend.
After Evie's departure, she realized how late it was. With growing alarm, she thought that Lucy should have returned quite a long time ago. Hours must have passed.
Standing, she fretted about whether to stay and wait or search for the carriage. Something terrible must have happened.
After retrieving some coins from her small wrist bag, she hired a hackney to convey her to the apothecary. When she found the shop closed for the day, she had the jarvey take her to the townhouse, her heart racing. But the carriage hadn't returned, nor was her brother back from the shipyard.
Julian would know what to do.
The jarvey squinted at her. “Yer sure ye be wantin’ ter go there, miss?"
"Yes, and I would like to arrive before Christmas, please."
The driver shrugged and whistled at his horse. The wheels crunched over the road and they made their way through the streets of London much slower than she wanted. Megan resisted the urge to yell out at the driver. She should not advertise the fact she was unescorted.
The air thickened with a horrific stench at the same time she noticed the dingy buildings. The only things holding up some of the dilapidated structures were light feet and heavy prayer.
Children stood at either side of the street, shoeless and wearing filthy rags. Large, haunted eyes stared blankly from little faces streaked with dirt and grime. The adults were in no better condition. Pity welled up within her and she swallowed tears. She would speak to her father about this.
A few minutes later, the hackney stopped and the driver announced, “'Ere ye are, miss."
"C-could you wait here, please? I'm just going to get my brother,” she asked with a measure of desperation. She handed him more coins to sweeten her request.
The driver looked around, taking in the rough atmosphere, then back to her and sighed heavily. He shifted in his seat. “Don't be long, miss,” he warned.
"Thank you. I shan't,” she promised, turning toward the row of large ships anchored nearby.
When she found her brother's clipper, she eyed the narrow boarding plank. Thoughts of her maid snuffed the urge to turn back. Taking a deep breath, she began to climb the unsteady board.
The piercing cry of a gull startled her. Her foot slipped, and she gasped. By God's grace she managed to keep upright. Giving the bothersome bird a good frown, she continued up the plank until she reached the deck.
"I say, miss. Ye ain't supposed t’ be ‘ere."
She spun around, plastering a hand over her thundering heart. Seeing a boy, she closed her eyes momentarily. “Oh, you frightened me,” she breathed.
"Are ye lost?” the boy asked as he stared up at her.
She smiled, her pulse no longer exploding in her temples. “That depends. What ship is this?"
"TheSweet Siren,” the boy confirmed with a puffed-out chest.
"Then I'm not lost. I need to see your commander. It is urgent."
"Right-o, miss,” he said as he spun on his heel and ran to the steps leading below deck.
Within moments, he returned with someone other than her brother. The man walked toward her with a surprised expression and roved his eyes over her face several times before he spoke. “I'm sorry, my lady, but the Master—our captain—has already departed. I am Stuart Williams, the second-in-command of this ship.” He gave a bow. “Can I be of some assistance to you?"
Her shoulders drooped. “No, thank you, Mr. Williams. It's Julian I need. Do you know if he left straightway for home?"
"I haven't a clue, my lady,” he answered. His sky blue eyes held an unspoken question.
"Then I am sorry to have disturbed you."
"Believe me, my lady, you didn't disturb me.” A smile grew on his lips.
As she began to return the smile, she remembered the jarvey. “I must leave. My driver said he wouldn't wait long."
"Are you sure I can't help you, Miss...” He trailed off and lifted his eyebrows.
"Oh, forgive my rudeness, Mr. Williams. I am Megan Westland, Julian's sister,” she replied and held out her hand.
Surprise flared in his eyes. “I had no idea that the master has such a lovely sister,” he said, taking her hand. He bowed over her gloved knuckles.
"Thank you, Mr. Williams, but I really must go now.” She turned and began the journey back to the hackney, praying the driver hadn't left. As she walked amongst the squalor, she pulled a lavender-scented handkerchief from her bag and held it to her nose.
The sun began to dip into the western waters as she took the last few steps to the waiting vehicle. Thank God it hadn't moved. Just as she placed a foot on the steps, she noticed the empty driver seat. A strong arm pulled her against a body as big and stiff as a tree trunk. She shrieked. His other hand clamped over her mouth, and a retch-provoking smell hit her. Dear God, he probably hadn't taken a bath in months.
"Yer not to make a sound,” the big oak grumbled into her ear with rancid-ale breath.
She nodded. She doubted she could scream again since her furiously beating heart was in her throat.
The large man looked around, then shuffled them into the dark alley behind him. She thrashed and tried to cry out. No use with his filthy hand clamped over her mouth. Her heart surged up her throat. Oh, God, oh God! She dug her heels into the ground, but he dragged her along. Using all her strength, she fought for freedom. He squeezed. The pain made stars dance before her eyes.
As they approached the shadows between the two buildings, the large man whispered into her ear. “Now, ‘old still an’ do as I says. I'm takin’ me ‘and away, so don't go makin’ no noise."
She nodded, and the oaf removed his hand. But as he tried to lift her skirt, she gnashed her heel onto his boot and threw her elbow into his bloated paunch.
The man grunted in pain, then wrapped his arms around her. “'Old still or t'will ‘urt all tha more,” he hissed into her ear.
Megan prayed as hot fat tears coursed down her cheeks. Dear God, why did she ever leave the safety of her home? Why did she come to the docks? She shivered, imagining the big oaf dumping her into the water after having his way with her. Hot bile rose up her throat.
A crack rent the silence and she was freed of his suffocating grasp. She spun around and saw the large brute stagger. His face contorted with pain and he shook his head. He blinked several times and then focused on her.
She shivered at the look of rage in those black, beady eyes. Taking a step back, she plastered her back against the dingy brick wall behind her. The man's fingers curled like talons, and he began to stalk toward her. She squeezed her eyes shut and turned away, unable to bear the thought of what was to come next.
Another loud crack sounded, followed by a heavy thud. She slowly opened her eyes. The large man lay on the ground. She turned to the alley's entrance. Was she being rescued or merely captured by another ruffian? She could detect nothing above the outline of a man standing there.
Her rescuer stepped forward. “Are you all right, Lady Megan?"
She sagged against the filthy wall and tried to calm her trembling. “Oh, Mr. Williams, however did you find me?"
He moved closer and steadied her with an arm around her shoulders. “I knew you weren't safe in this area, so I followed you.” He eyed the filthy man. “Now, let's get you home. Can you walk?"
She leaned heavily against him, feeling weak. “I believe so, thank you,” she whispered.
The sky darkened a shade with each passing minute; it became difficult to see. They arrived at the hired hackney, and she gasped when she saw the crumpled form hunched over the driver's seat.
Mr. Williams stepped onto the coach and examined the old man. “He will have a nasty ache in his head when he arouses, but he should be fine,” he announced as he stepped down.
"Oh, thank heavens."
"I'll help you inside and take you home, my lady."
They had gone some distance when she began to settle her trembling. When the vehicle turned onto Upper Brook Street, she heard a familiar voice roar over the clip-clop of the horse's hooves.
"Where is she?” Julian bellowed.
She jerked upright. “Mr. Williams, please stop,” she implored, then scampered down from the hackney without assistance.
"What are you talking about?” Nicholas asked when his surprise at seeing Julian arrive at his townhouse had abated.
"You know exactly what I am talking about. Megan. Where is she?"
He tensed. “Megan is missing?” Fear doused his entire body. A movement beyond Julian's right shoulder caught his attention, and he looked up. Recognizing the disheveled little body, he rushed down the steps and scooped her into his arms, noticing her dirty, torn gown. A large, grungy handprint covered her mouth and chin. Dismay made his head spin. Most of the pins had come out of her hair, causing the thick tresses to pour over her shoulders and down her back in a tangled black mass. She shook like a leaf in a gale.
He held her tenderly against his hammering heart. “Meg, are you all right? What happened, love?” he asked when he could locate his voice, then kissed her forehead and cheek.
"My God, Moppet,” Julian breathed as he approached.
"She's had quite a scare, Master."
Julian's head snapped up. “Stuart, what are you doing here?"
"I was bringing your sister home, sir. She came to the dock looking for you, but a large bloke took her into an alley. I had to hit him over the head with a piece of plank to get her away from him."
Nicholas looked back down at Megan and felt a violent jolt of wrath for her attacker burn a path through his body. “Did the man hurt you, love?” he asked.
"No. Mr. Williams arrived in time,” she responded in a small, shaky voice.
"It's late. Give Megan to me, Claremont, and I shall take her home,” Julian ordered.
He shook his head. “I think she needs to lie down right away. She shouldn't be moved until a doctor examines her.” He refused to let her go.
"The driver,” she said, turning to Mr. Williams.
"The man must have knocked the jarvey out and waited for your sister to return,” the seaman explained. He turned back to Megan, his eyes softening.
"Come, Meg, I'll have Carson bring in the driver and fetch a doctor for you both,” Nicholas said, not liking the way the seaman looked at Megan.
"Absolutely not, Claremont,” Julian said.
Nicholas tightened his hold on her and stepped away, shaking his head. Not yet.
He heard her sigh. “Nicholas, I am fine. Please, put me down. It is the driver who is hurt and needs a doctor."
"Are you sure, love?” God, how he missed her.
"Yes, I'm sure. Put me down,” she insisted.
As he lowered her carefully to the ground, he couldn't resist a taste of her lips. It had been way too long.
"God's blood, man. Are you insane?” Julian hissed, glancing around. Before he realized it, Julian captured Megan's hand and stowed her within the hackney. He stood helpless as he watched the vehicle roll away, his heart torn from his chest.
Fury boiled behind Julian's eyes as he ushered Megan into their house. She knew it wasn't directed at her. Well, not yet, anyway. Once he realized she had gone out without him, he'd give her what for. She dreaded that little chat.
As Julian handed his coat to Wentworth, Lucy ran up to them. “Oh, Lady Megan, are you all right? I heard you went out looking for Hanson and me. We had a bit ‘o trouble with one of the wheels, but you had already left the park when we finished repairing it.” She paused, her teary eyes growing wide. “Look at your gown. What happened? I shouldn't have left you!"
She took a deep breath. At least Lucy hadn't been harmed. “It's nothing, Lucy. Would you prepare my bath and something to eat? I'll be up momentarily."
As she started for the stairs, Julian placed a hand on her shoulder. “I'd like a word."
Megan sighed and followed her brother into their father's study.
Julian glared at her for several seconds. “I told you not to go to the park without me."
"No, Julian, you said that you couldn't go."
He leaned back in his chair. “In the future, you are not to leave this house without me. Is that clear?"
Megan could not believe her ears. “You have no—"
"Father has given you too much freedom at the estate, but we are not at the estate. We are in London, where ladies go missing, never to be found.” He paused to give her a good frown. “Next time, there might not be anyone around to assist you."
Megan couldn't force away the terrible images of being held in that alley. And what almost happened. Her anger fizzled away, leaving her weak and hollow.
"Now,” Julian gentled his voice, “tell me exactly what happened."
After Megan left, Julian sat at his father's desk and sipped his brandy. A knock sounded. “Enter."
"My lord, Mr. Williams to see you,” Wentworth announced.
He nodded. “Send him in."
Stuart entered the room a moment later, looking haggard. Julian gritted his teeth, knowing what his first mate would report. The man who attacked his sister had escaped. “Master,” Stuart began uncomfortably. “When I returned to the alley, the man was gone. I've searched everywhere and cannot locate him."
"Do you have any clues as to the man's identity?"
Stuart shook his head. “Sorry, sir. I never got a proper look at his face. When I returned a little while ago with a lantern, I found nothing but a few spatters of blood."
Julian closed his eyes. He had hoped Stuart could give a better description than the one Megan had given him earlier. Hell, a ‘foul-smelling brute with dark, greasy hair and a grungy beard who spoke incoherently’ described almost every dock worker in England.
"Is there anything else I can do, Master?"
He glared at his first mate. “Just keep your eyes open,” he snapped, feeling his body tremble with the effort to control his fury.
Stuart nodded. “Aye, sir,” he said, then left.
He lifted his forgotten brandy from the desk. “Damn,” he roared as he threw the crystal snifter into the fireplace.
[Back to Table of Contents]CHAPTER 10
"I think we should cancel this evening."
Megan finished arranging the crown that went with her queen's costume. “Julian, you were the one who insisted I go."
"That was before you were...” He paused and sighed. “I think you should stay indoors until that man is found."
She frowned at his reflection in the large mirror before her. “I have been staying indoors for days, Julian, and quite frankly, I'm beginning to go mad. Besides, I'm looking forward to tonight. And,” She turned to him with a smile, “I'll have my big brother protect me from all of the dangers a masque could bring."
He shook his head, a grin lurking at the corners of his mouth. “You are too clever for your own good, my sweet."
An hour later, she regretted her decision to go. Once Julian had guided her to the balustrade at the top of the stairs, she glanced down at the crowd and gasped. There seemed to be more people here than at the theater. A thousand eyes would be on her, staring, scrutinizing every step. What if she didn't hold her fan right? What if she tripped on the rug? What if she forgot the steps to a dance? Oh, Lord. This night would last forever.
"Lord Julian Westland, Marquess of Amersleigh, and Lady Megan Westland, son and daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kenbrook,” the under-butler announced.
A hush swept over the room, eerily similar to the night of the theater. Clutching the stick of her golden mask, she held it firmly to her face as she began to descend the staircase with her brother. After a few steps, she realized that the clop of Julian's boot heels and the swish of her costume were the only things to disturb the room's thick silence. She trembled when they cleared the last step.
The hostess, the dowager Duchess of Huntington, greeted them. “Lord Amersleigh, how wonderful it is to see you again."
Julian bowed. “Indeed, Your Grace, it is always a pleasure to see you. I present my sister, Lady Megan Westland.” He turned. “Megan, please make the acquaintance of Her Grace, Anne Claiborne, the dowager Duchess of Huntington."
She took away her mask and heard a rumble move through the crowd. She ignored it and curtsied low to the dowager duchess before Julian turned her attention to the three standing beside the regal, silver-haired lady.
"And this is His Grace, Daniel Claiborne, the Duke of Huntington."
She issued another graceful curtsy then held up her hand. “Your Grace."
His Grace blinked a couple of times, then gently captured her hand and bowed over it. “Lady Megan."
She turned when her brother continued the introductions.
"This is Huntington's younger brother, Lord Andrew. And this beautiful young lady is their sister, Lady Victoria,” Julian said. Then he leaned down and spoke softly into her ear. “This is her come-out as well, Moppet."
Lady Victoria produced the most perfect curtsy to Julian, then turned and smiled true warmth. Megan smiled back, wondering how the girl could stay calm with so many people watching.
As the next guests were introduced, Julian led her into the bustling ballroom. She hoped she would have the opportunity to get to know Victoria Claiborne better. Perhaps they could become friends.
The crowed pooled around them as soon as they moved beyond the stairs. Megan grew more uncomfortable as Julian performed all of the introductions. It was difficult for her to remember which name went with which face. But a familiar voice had her smiling suddenly.
"Megan, hello. Or should I address you as Your Majesty tonight? You make a stunning queen, my dear. That costume is quite the go.” Evie's voice.
Megan turned and beamed. “Evie, I am glad to see you again.” She took note of the colorful wings sewn into the back of her friend's jade-green gown. “And what a splendid butterfly you are."
Evie's round, brown eyes sparkled with the compliment. “Why, thank you.” She nodded, dislodging a few chestnut curls from their pins.
When a man cleared his throat, Evie rolled her eyes. “Lady Megan Westland, please make the acquaintance of my brother, Lord William Thornton, the Earl of Ashton. As you can see, he didn't have time to fetch a costume.” Evie stated the last under her breath, then giggled.
Lord Ashton stood about six feet tall and surprisingly handsome, Megan noticed as he came forward and kissed her gloved hand. “I am pleased to finally meet you, my lady,” he drawled, his dark eyes smoldering.
She extracted her hand. “I'm glad to meet you as well, Lord Ashton. Your sister has spoken a lot about you."
He leaned forward, a smile curving his lips. “I hope she lied and told you nothing but good things,” he whispered.
Her brother's summons for another introduction kept her from making a reply. The earl's open interest made her a little uncomfortable. There was no spark, no excitement like when she was around Nicholas. Nicholas. Just the thought of his name sent shivers down her body. She scanned the crowd, wondering if he could be out there somewhere.
She had a difficult time keeping account of all the new faces. Thankfully, Evie was with her. Her new friend seemed to have information on everyone.
When Julian summoned her yet again, Megan groaned to herself and politely left Evie and Victoria.
"Jeremy, meet my sister, Lady Megan Westland. Megan, this is Lord Jeremy Longwell, the Marquess of Fielding."
"Lord Fielding.” She curtsied. All this curtsying was giving her a backache. Who invented such nonsense anyway?
"Oh, please call me Jeremy,” he replied silkily. He brushed her knuckles with a kiss.
She removed her hand. Speaking a given name in public upon introductions would be scandalous. “Have you been acquainted with my brother long, my lord?"
"Only about twenty years, my lady."
Although quite attractive, with light brown hair, hazel eyes, and an alarming grin, he didn't do anything for her. Nicholas was the only man able to make her heart leap from just a glance and have her insides melt from one touch. But where the devil was he? She bit her lip, unable to deny her feelings any longer. He owned her heart. Perhaps he'd always owned her heart. And no one else would ever possess it. “Pray, you recall the first dance belongs to me,” a deep voice announced in her right ear.
She turned in surprise and a little fright. The low rumble in her ear from behind reminded her of the beastly oaf who had her trapped in that rancid alley just days ago. With her heart pounding, she found it hard to speak.
"Are you all right, my lady?” asked Lord Bentwood.
"Yes, thank you. I'm sorry, but you frightened me so,” she answered, unable to keep her voice steady.
Evie came forward. “Megan, what's wrong?"
She nodded, feeling silly for overreacting. “You haven't met my brother."
Evie shook her head. “I'm sorry, but Ash wishes to see me. I promise to return later."
As Evie scurried away, Megan noticed that her friend glanced over her shoulder with tears in her eyes, then disappeared into the crowd.
Swiveling around, Megan found the one that Evie had looked upon with such anguish and realized that Jeremy Longwell was the man who broke her friend's heart three years ago. And it seemed that the poor girl's heart had remained shattered ever since.