Excerpt: Bad Luck Bride

Excerpt: Bad Luck Bride

Book 1: The Cavensham Heiresses

Chapter One

January 1811
Dorchester

The raw wind pounded every inch of Alexander’s body and lashed at what little remained of his compassion. As Marquess of Pembrooke, Alex had fought for years to cultivate the fine art of patience. Today proved that to have been a waste of time.

He should have ignored the lessons of forbearance and studied the intricacies of inflicting vengeance. Never again would he take for granted the epithet of “friend”—not when friend meant betrayer. The barren, snow-packed field was a perfect stage for a duel. Mere feet separated him from Lord Paul Barstowe, the man who had destroyed his family.

Alex’s bay stallion edged closer to Lord Paul’s white gelding. From this distance, the weather-roughened face of Lord Paul, the second son of the Duke of Southart, failed to mar Alex’s childhood memories. In their youth they’d been inseparable. They’d witnessed each other’s milestones. They’d celebrated each other’s successes and suffered through the failures. Their friendship should have lasted until their deaths. Instead, it died instantly when Alex found his sister’s letter explaining her suicide.

“Alice is dead.” The bay stomped and blew out a breath of steam. By rote, Alex stilled the beast with a soft pat. Nothing good would come from delay. His eyes burned. The north wind’s fury strengthened, but he refused to turn away. “I buried her two days ago.”

Lord Paul tilted his head and flexed his gloved fingers. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Alex attributed the numbness that had invaded his body to grief and the weeklong bitter cold. He pushed the misery aside and subdued the anger that nipped at his sanity. Even if his pursuit of justice caused his own blood to stain the snow, the sacrifice would bring some peace. Bile took refuge in his throat. He dismissed it with a hard swallow.

Alice Aubrey Hallworth, his youngest sister, lay in the Pembrooke family crypt. A week ago, she’d laughed and charmed the entire family at dinner. When they’d finished the evening meal, she had excused herself, then taken a tonic before bed.

She never woke.

Now, there was nothing left but Lord Paul. How one so dissolute could ruin one so young was a question Alex would never understand. He drew a gulp of air in a desperate attempt to keep his pain buried deep inside.

Alex tightened the reins. “She was carrying your child.”

In the distance, a disturbance arose, upsetting the desolate, snow-encrusted field. From the west, a man upon a black horse raced across the icy stretch of open land. Time was of the essence. Lord Paul had to agree to the duel before Nicholas St. Mauer, the Earl of Somerton, arrived. It had been a mistake to tell Somerton his plan.

“How do you know the child was mine?” Lord Paul’s voice rose in defiance.

“She left a note and told me not to blame you. But now, all those times I encountered you both together during the fall hunting party and the holidays—” The words and memories made Alex physically sick; the nausea churned in his belly. “She was happy. I thought it all above suspicion.”

Alex waited for Lord Paul to show some remorse, even if only to ask if Alice had suffered. As the silence lengthened, the weight of the two flintlock pistols in his pockets offered the only comfort he’d accept this day.

By this time, Somerton had closed the distance by half. Clouds of snow rose from the ground, the peace disrupted by the horse’s churning hooves.

“How unfortunate for all.” Lord Paul squinted toward the rider.

“Indeed.” Alex leaned forward as his entire body tensed. He fought the desire to reach inside his jacket for one of the pistols. Instead, he coaxed his horse to stand within inches of Lord Paul’s white gelding. “Do me the simple courtesy of looking at me.”

Lord Paul made no move in his direction.

The unrelenting need to hear the man’s betrayal and remorse firsthand spurred Alex to continue. “How could you seduce Alice, then abandon her like a piece of refuse on the street? How could you leave her with child?”

“I don’t suppose telling you I had nothing to do with it will change our situation.” Lord Paul finally looked at Alex. “She pursued me—”

Damn you.” Alex’s voice rang out like a shot across the empty field. “Why didn’t you stay with her? You should have done the honorable thing and married her.”

As the last words faded, Lord Paul’s face paled. “Careful, Pembrooke. Don’t rush to a judgment you’ll regret.”

“We’ll settle it, here and now.” Before Alex uttered the rest of the challenge, the Earl of Somerton arrived on horseback and came to an abrupt stop.

Lord Paul held his hand away from his face to block the swirl of snow that engulfed him at the arrival of the earl.

Somerton brought his mount forward to separate the two men and their horses. The earl’s jaw clenched, and his eyes narrowed. “Pembrooke, enough!”

“Dashing entrance, Somerton.” Lord Paul’s smile was pure provocation. “Come to save him? Too late. Your friend is well on his way to hell in a handcart.”

“You’d best leave.” Somerton’s voice thickened with emotion. “Now.”

Alex refused to acknowledge the interruption. Lord Paul was his sole concern. “You will pay for your treachery tonight.” He cared nothing about facing a trial in the House of Lords for killing the man in a duel of honor.

Somerton blocked Alex’s view and reached for the horse’s bridle. “Pembrooke.” The timbre of his friend’s voice turned mellow and even, as if trying to tame a wild animal. “Alex, come on, old man.”

Whatever he had done in the past to deserve Somerton’s loyalty was a curse today. In one tug of the reins, Alex coaxed the horse away from the earl’s grasp. “No. I will finish this one way or the other.” Resolved to deliver a day of reckoning for Lord Paul’s deception, he turned to face him. “We don’t need the luxury of surgeons or seconds.”

Somerton moved his horse forward and demanded, “Lord Paul, leave.” The snowfall stopped as if on command as the earl raised his hand to slap the hindquarters of the white gelding.

“Somerton, stay out of this!” Alex’s outcry caused a flutter of movement in the nearby trees as several birds fled.

Before the earl dropped his hand, the horse bolted. Lord Paul fled into the nearby woods and the oncoming night.

Alex reached with his right hand and grasped the handle of a pistol. As he pulled the heavy weight from his pocket, his conscience made a spontaneous and regrettable appearance. He bit off an oath, then slowly released his hold.

The fallen snow had deadened every sound except the subtle creaking of Somerton’s leather saddle as he shifted his weight. Alex’s grief, still raw, scored his every breath, his every thought, his every hope of future happiness.

He would not live this way. He’d find another way to force Lord Paul to atone for his sins. Memories of Alice, once bright and clear, were now stained a dirty umber.

Sleet replaced the snow. Raising his face to the gray sky, Alex embraced the razor-sharp pelt of ice against his skin. When he became accustomed to the stinging pain, he broke the silence in a steady voice. “I will take everything from him. I do not care the cost or sacrifice. Everything he holds dear will be mine.”

Chapter Two

April 1812
London—The Reynolds Gambling Establishment

Lord Paul repeatedly slapped his gloves in the palm of his hand. Again. And again. The movement reminded Alex of an angry cat twitching its tail when treed by a persistent hound.

You bought my vowels?” Lord Paul’s face darkened with disbelief.

Alex raised an eyebrow and lifted the corners of his mouth, though there was no humor in the moment. “No need to thank me.”

Lord Paul narrowed his ice-blue eyes. “When hell freezes or there are thirty Thursdays in February. Whichever occurs first.”

Alex ignored the sarcasm and withdrew a piece of paper from his coat pocket. “I agree to pay all your gambling debts, including the ones from today. In exchange, you give me the deed to your Dorchester property, Willow House.” He lowered his voice and handed the single sheet of paper to his nemesis. “Also, you will sign this.”

Lord Paul snatched the paper from his hand. He didn’t spare a glance at the entrance of Alex’s two solicitors.

The suffocating weight lifted from Alex’s chest. Tonight, after months of devising the proper punishment, he could breathe freely again. His honor had dictated such satisfaction. Alice and her baby were dead, and nothing would bring them back, but the retribution he delivered would assuage Lord Paul’s betrayal.

Alex forced himself to appear calm, but his fist itched to take a swing at the swine in front of him. “Sign the note, and we’re through. You’re safe from your creditors, and this outrageous circus you created.”

Lord Paul finished reading and looked up with a start. “You bloody bastard! If I give up Lady Claire, I won’t be able to pay my debts. I’m as much as ruined.”

“She’s not your responsibility anymore.” If he had it within his power, no woman would be Lord Paul’s concern ever again.

Lord Paul’s angry demeanor slipped when a brief hint of panic widened his eyes. With a blink it was gone, but Alex knew he’d scored a deep blow. “You ruin me, you’ll destroy Lady Claire, too. She can’t afford the scandal of another broken engagement. Besides, she’s a lovelorn calf. Can’t keep away from me. Of course, I oblige her.”

“What are you suggesting?” Alex leaned across the green felt gaming table. It took every ounce of self-control not to kill the miscreant before him. The thought that Lord Paul had ruined another innocent made his gut turn. “Careful of your answer. If the Duke of Langham heard—”

“Don’t be tedious. Of course I’ve had her.” Lord Paul’s face twisted into a smirk. “You can force me to sign it, but what good will it do? If need be, I’ll marry her by special license tomorrow. The chit would be ecstatic and think it romantic.”

“If you make the attempt, I’ll know. Any foolish move on your part, I’ll sell you back to your creditors. A rather nasty lot prone to violence, I hear.” Alex mimicked Lord Paul’s tic by popping his own gloves into his palm. The sound echoed through the room like a whip against bare skin.

With a hatred unmasked for all to witness, Lord Paul glared at Alex. Both knew there was no other recourse. With minimum movement, he dipped the quill into the inkwell and signed the note.

As casually as possible, Alex took possession of the paper and sprinkled sand over the signature.

Lord Paul leaned close. “I didn’t realize I was worth this much to you.”

“You aren’t, but Alice was.” Alex drew a breath for patience and summoned every speck of poise he’d collected over his lifetime. “You should have played deeper. I’d have paid much more.”

He threw the black greatcoat over his shoulders and walked to the door with the paper in hand. With each step, part of the burden fell further away. Yet his own remorse lingered and weighed heavy on his conscience. He should have taken greater care with Alice. Too engaged in the daily management of his estate, he had missed numerous opportunities to spend time with her. What had she hoped for her future? Had she looked forward to her debut in society? Now, he’d never know. He should have seen Alice’s humor and good cheer were nothing more than masks to hide her pain.

He took one last look at Lord Paul. The bastard would soon realize the extent to which he was ruined. “It was fortuitous I didn’t kill you, as that would have been too easy. I’d much rather see you suffer as Alice did.” He breathed in the stale remnants of cheroots, cheap spirits, and Lord Paul’s desperation. The combination was a heady scent, one he’d remember until his dying day. For the first time since he’d discovered Alice dead, he felt alive.

His solicitors would expound every excruciating clause in detail, but Alex could explain it in far easier terms. He had crushed Lord Paul. To put the final nail in the coffin, he would attend this evening’s ball, where he would ask for Lady Claire’s hand.

She would need him when her engagement to Lord Paul ended.

With little success, Alex tried to quash the truth that forced its way into his thoughts. He needed her as much as, if not more than, she needed him.

There was only one problem. He needed to persuade her to ruin herself and jilt her fourth fiancé.

 

Alex was actually looking forward to Lady Anthony’s ball. Normally these functions were a bore, akin to a fatal, gut-churning plague, but not tonight’s event. He was eager to dance and converse with Lady Claire, the woman he would convince to marry him. He studied the perimeter of the dance floor from the second-floor balcony. The dance crowd slowed to a stop. The graceful sway of the ladies’ dresses didn’t hold his interest. Only one woman commanded his attention tonight.

He would recognize that radiant crown of dark red anywhere. Lady Claire’s hair was a beacon, guiding his gaze. The last time they had met, she had been a tall, gawky girl who had reminded him of a skittish filly. A rare frisson of excitement caught him by surprise. She was no longer such a creature burgeoning into adulthood, but a lovely woman.

Lady Claire Cavensham, the only child of the late Duke of Langham, laughed with a group of young women. From the corner of the ballroom, a liveried footman walked in her direction with a note, the claret color of the Barstowe family stationery recognizable even from the second floor.

The horror of the moment pummeled him as hard as a direct punch. “The bastard,” Alex said under his breath. The insipid arse hadn’t possessed the decency to see her in person.

The footman moved closer to Lady Claire, and time slowed to a crawl. The scene below unfolded like the few seconds before a carriage accident. A person saw the wreck coming but lacked the ability to stop the damage.

Regret bled into his musings. She was hardly at fault. With haste, he made his way downstairs in an attempt to lessen the damage. With a bit of luck, he could intercept the footman before he delivered the note.

Alex dodged several guests as he made his way to Lady Claire. It would be inexcusable to run through the throng of attendees, but that didn’t stop him from ignoring several greetings from friends as he passed. Only twenty feet separated him from saving her.

“Pembrooke! What the hell are you doing here?” A euphoric Lord Fredrick Honeycutt blocked Alex’s path. “I haven’t seen you in ages. Are you headed to the card room?”

“Not now, Honeycutt. I’ll find you later.” With a brief nod, Alex sidestepped the man and continued toward Lady Claire.

The footman extended the silver salver containing the missive. She pursed her brow before her eyes grew wide. She must have recognized the color of the stationery. In a barely perceivable instant, she masked her concern. With a slight smile, she nodded and took the note.

Alex’s gut slammed to the floor as she stepped away from her friends and with a flick of her finger broke the seal.

 

Bloody hell. Claire wanted to scream the words aloud as she crushed the note in her hand. The thick paper’s sharp edges, a painful reminder of its contents, gouged her palms through her cream-colored satin gloves.

She held the note from her fourth fiancé. Short, terse, and in an annoyingly elegant hand, Lord Paul informed her that he would not be attending their engagement announcement. The words were nothing more than a release from another promise of everlasting matrimony.

True, she did not love Lord Paul, but she had thought of him as a friend. Perhaps, over time, a friend she could have learned to love. There was no denying what had happened tonight.

The hateful curse had struck again.

One more sorry rejection she could add to her collection. Dazed, Claire bowed her head in shame, her glance skimming the beautiful engagement dress, a confection designed and carefully crafted to celebrate tonight’s betrothal announcement. Within the hour, she had planned to dance with Lord Paul in front of the guests, her gown sweeping the curse out of the ballroom and out of her life. Now, all she had in her future was the humiliation that waited for her once the ton heard she had suffered yet another broken betrothal. Only this time, they would have a front-row seat.

All she’d ever wanted was a family of her own. To have a family, she had to marry. Truthfully, she wasn’t particular whom she married—just determined.

She blinked to make certain she wasn’t dreaming. “Ruined” did not express the calamity of the evening. The term might have explained her situation two fiancés ago, but “destroyed” was a more apt description of the night. She dreaded the inevitable snorts and snickers from onlookers when they pounced upon the discovery that her fourth fiancé had taken the much heeded advice and jilted her a mere hour before the announcement.

Long live the Lady Claire Curse.

She was not one of those women who lost the resolve to fight. With every breath and every muscle in her body, she vowed to make her escape. She pasted a serene smile on her lips. Head held high like a proper duke’s daughter, she backed away from her cousin Emma and her friends. A second step increased her momentum. One more, and she would be out of sight of the guests gathered near their group, then she could hasten her departure.

As she made the step to pivot, the hard edge of a serving tray slammed into her back. Glass shattered around her. The tinkling of the shards echoed throughout the large room as the orchestra’s last strains faded to silence. Claire pressed her eyes shut, then opened them to see the damage. Dancers, dowagers, and debutantes turned in unison at the catastrophe. The all-too-familiar heat bludgeoned her cheeks.

She faced the unfortunate footman who held the upended tray. “Pardon me. That was my fault. Are you hurt?”

The footman shook his head. “I beg your pardon, my lady.” He bent down to pick up the fragments of broken glass.

Stomach sucked in and shoulders squared, she returned her attention to the dance floor. The other guests had resumed their festivities, except for the onlookers closest to her. Several smirks alighted across the sea of faces at her embarrassing attempt to escape.

“Claire, is everything all right? You look a little . . . unsettled?” Her cousin Emma stood by her side with a brilliant smile that brightened the entire room.

If Claire hinted what had transpired within the last few moments, she doubted her cousin would be able to keep the worry from her beautiful face. “I’m fine. I just need some air.”

Emma’s nod made her honey-colored curls shine in the candlelight. “Your anxiety is perfectly understandable. Personally, I cannot wait for the announcement. Finally, I’ll get a full glass of champagne, maybe two.” Apparently satisfied all was well, she patted Claire’s arm, then returned to her friends.

Tonight, Claire’s aunt and uncle had planned to raise a toast to her future happiness. They’d already asked Lady Anthony if they could make an announcement. Thank heavens they hadn’t specified what it was.

The liveried footman who had delivered the note stood by her side, ready to assist. With his black-and-gold attire matching the ballroom decor, the man looked like a worker bee in an active hive. Footmen in similar costumes moved in precision throughout the room to attend the other guests. The first strains of a quadrille floated into the air.

The servant bowed slightly. “My lady, will there be a response?”

Where was it? In her shock, she must have dropped the missive. A quick survey of the floor revealed the note a mere foot away.

She knelt to pick it up. At the same time, a large male hand reached for the paper.

A burst of pain exploded at Claire’s right temple as she bumped heads with the man. Horrified at her clumsiness, she jerked backward. What more could go wrong this evening? Miraculously, she didn’t fall into a heap. “I’m sorry. . . .”

The rest of the apology melted when Claire found the most arresting pair of gray eyes studying her. Without a thought to the consequence, she snatched the note directly out of his gloved fingers to stop him from reading it. “Excuse me, but that’s mine.”

Alexander Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke, crouched before her. “Lady Claire, allow me to assist you.” The half smile he offered appeared almost compassionate.

His whisky-dark voice caused a warm tingle to spread from the top of her head to her toes. His black evening coat accentuated the breadth of his shoulders. Even resting on his haunches, he towered over her. Mortified at her earlier incivility with the note, she averted her eyes, and her serene smile collapsed. “Thank you.”

He lightly clasped her elbow and helped her stand.

With a dismissive turn, Claire faced the footman. “I need to send a message to my uncle, the Duke of Langham. Is there someplace private, away from the noise?”

Claire ignored the urge to steal another peek at Pembrooke for fear he would discover her secret. Where had he come from? He never attended these events.

She followed her bumblebee escort into a dimly lit salon decorated in colors of the footman’s livery. The plush gold carpet muffled her steps, and she wished it could perform the same magic on her pounding heartbeat. The footman produced a sheet of paper with a sharpened quill and a fresh pot of ink.

The effort to pen a quick note was more difficult than expected. Her hand shook to such a degree that a large smear of iron gall ink stained her pristine glove, one more blemish on the evening. Somehow, she composed her thoughts, a simple request that her aunt and uncle meet her in the vestibule so she could leave without notice. The ink had barely dried when she sealed the missive. “Please deliver this immediately. I’ll not wait for his reply.”

“Yes, my lady.”

The footman opened the door, and the noise from the ballroom festivities barged into the room like an uninvited guest. After he left, she welcomed the sweet comfort of silence. Another broken betrothal. Her chest tightened with the familiar pain. The hurt was not from the string of unsuccessful engagements, but more, the undeniable truth she would never have a family to replace the one she’d lost.

With a glance around the salon, she let out a tiny sigh of relief. Fortune bestowed a brief grin on her dire circumstances. The room overlooked Lady Anthony’s formal gardens. Any other night she would have been content admiring the promised tranquility from afar. Tonight, it conspired to act as her accomplice.

Through the ornate floor-to-ceiling French doors, she made her escape onto the terrace and down the steps. She couldn’t chance another walk through the ballroom and face a plethora of curious stares from the vultures who masqueraded as guests.

Small lanterns swayed in the gentle breeze. Light danced upon the pathway. A chill ran across her arm, and her skin prickled. There was no cause to worry about discovery since the gardens would most likely be empty. The midnight supper guaranteed to keep the party inside.

Within fifteen minutes, she would find some peace of mind safely cocooned with her aunt and uncle in the family’s coach. The late evening dew soaked her silk dance slippers and, undoubtedly, the hem of her beautiful dress. It was a small price to pay for freedom.

A brief flash of lightning appeared in the west. Claire stopped dead in her tracks, then straightened her spine. She quelled the new worry that joined her current discomfort and continued on her way. A few gentle drops of rain fell on her shoulders. Dear God, not this. Not now. She hummed the lullaby her mother had taught her to keep her fears at bay.

Completely unprepared to face a storm, she took several deep breaths to bolster her courage. Thunder rolled from behind and grew closer in a strange rhythmic pattern. Her chest muscles seized and held her breath prisoner. With no warning, her heartbeat revolted and exploded in her chest.

The garden around her disappeared, and once again she was ten years old. The crack of splitting wood accompanied by the boom of thunder spilled into the carriage as they crossed the bridge to Wrenwood. The vehicle lurched to the right. The din of the storm swallowed the horses’ screams and the outriders’ frantic shouts. End over end, the carriage tumbled. The coach groaned as the paneled wood splintered. Suddenly, she was plunged into the frigid water that stole her breath. Her skirts tangled around her legs. Alone, wild with fear, and unable to kick free, she fought the surrounding blackness.

“My lady?” The deep voice brought her back to the present. Her racing pulse slowed. The footman must have seen her exit. She turned to assure him all was well, but her short-lived reprieve transformed into a full sense of dread.

“Lord Pembrooke,” she whispered. Now she faced a delay in reaching her aunt and uncle besides the risk of discovery.

At least she had company. . . .

Enough! She had to control her panic. All she needed was another two minutes to reach the vestibule.

He surprised her with a sudden enchanting smile. “You must be enjoying the ball about as much as I am. It was quite a feat to catch you.”

Claire managed a small, tentative smile in answer. What could he possibly want with her this evening? The distant notes of the supper waltz faded to nothing. “You wanted to catch me?”

Pembrooke took a step closer. She muffled the whimper that threatened at his sudden nearness. A brilliant flicker of lightning caused his eyes to flash like a blaze of fire. His black hair made it nigh impossible to see where his head ended and the night began.

“In the ballroom you appeared distraught. I’m here to offer assistance.”

His words set alarm bells clanging. If he had seen her agitation, who else had?

“Assistance?” Claire winced as soon as the word escaped. She was not a blasted parrot. She swallowed the lump in her throat before casting a glance over his shoulder. No one else accompanied him.

Another charge of light rent the sky. An uncontrollable shiver skated down her back.

Pembrooke leaned into the pathway light. The lantern’s flame cast his strong chin and chiseled cheekbones into prominence. His eyes scrutinized her with the intensity of a scientist cataloging an insect’s features under a magnifying glass.

Her parched throat prevented another swallow. If he continued to examine her in such detail, he might discover the true magnitude of her distress.

“Lady Claire . . .” His whisper surrounded her. “Let’s discuss Lord Paul.”

 

A fiery flash lit the sky. At Claire’s sharp inhalation, Alex extended his hand in invitation. “Shall we escape the rain?” A small alcove attached to the house and located to the right of the pathway would provide a safe cover.

“I’m expected in the ballroom.” The feigned strength in her voice reminded Alex of a wounded animal desperate to defend itself. The tremble of her hands corroborated the true extent of her turmoil.

The warm glow from the garden lanterns caused the droplets on her shoulders and hair to glimmer like tiny diamonds. She made Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus look plain. With a chuckle designed to alleviate some of her anxiety, he closed the distance between them and confided their shared secret. “You do realize you’re headed in the wrong direction?”

Her eyes shimmered with a sheen of moisture.

The urge to brush away any wayward tears on her cheeks came from nowhere. “That was artless.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I apologize. It was not my intent to make light of your situation.” Tonight was difficult enough for both of them. He wanted her to accept his offer, not be frightened of him. “Please. This is important. On my honor, you have nothing to fear.”

Claire took a tentative step toward the alcove.

Alex followed with his hand at the small of her back, ready to stop her if she tried to run.

She paused before crossing under the arched doorway, and the lantern’s light bathed her in a golden hue that enhanced the creamy complexion of her skin. A slight breeze delivered a hint of her fragrance, a spicy citrus. The aromatic blend was pleasant but rather unique for a woman.

“Shall we sit?” He pointed to a granite bench.

“No, that won’t be necessary. What do you want?” Curtness tinted with something heavier dripped from her voice. Perhaps despair, since she looked as if she had seen a ghost and had barely lived to tell the tale.

He stepped closer. Lady Claire stood stock-still. She looked like a very brave, very small soldier. Or perhaps a very cold soldier.

He slipped off his tight-fitting evening coat. Instead of handing her the garment, he placed it around her shoulders.

Her body tensed as he leaned in. “Th-thank you,” she said softly.

Even with a minimum amount of light, her hair held the color of rich auburn. From nowhere, the urge to run his hands over the curves that defined her hips and rounded chest caused his body to tighten. The only explanation for such a visceral reaction had to be tonight’s events. She was beautiful, but he’d been in the company of beautiful women before. No, it was her poise under the most difficult of circumstances, the humiliation of another broken engagement, that caused his pulse to drum a pounding rhythm.

Alex swept the errant thoughts away. He had a tricky proposition in front of him: marriage. “Lady Claire—”

“Why are you following me?” She eyed the archway and pulled his coat tighter to her body. “I’ll be missed if I don’t return to my family promptly.”

He wasn’t certain whether she was afraid or annoyed. Her behavior was unusual.

“How are you planning to manage the rumors of Lord Paul’s absence tonight?” Alex gentled his voice to soften the impending blow. “I say this not to be cruel, but by morning the entire ton shall share the news of another lost fiancé unless you act tonight. I might add they will revel once again in your latest mishap.”

“You mock me?” Her eyes pierced his gaze like an arrow.

“Not at all. I want to help.” He needed to tread carefully. He had enough experience with the women in his life to know he was in danger of receiving a cordial but thorough tongue-lashing. “I’d like to discuss your unfortunate circumstances in an honest and forthright manner.”

Her stoic face reminded him of Italian Renaissance paintings, the subjects’ serenity marred by a subtle hint of discontent. “The Lady Claire Curse has taken on a life of its own,” he said finally.

She flinched so slightly that he almost missed it.

Her discomfort caused a surge of protectiveness to blast through him like a thunderbolt. “The ton feeds on such scandal regardless of the truth.” He locked his hands behind his back. “To shield yourself from the gossip that will erupt once it’s discovered, you should announce you broke the engagement with Lord Paul tonight. If you don’t act first, you’ll be laughed out of town once and for all. London will not discern if you are a duke’s daughter, niece, or laundry maid.”

“One can only have so many proposed trips down the matrimonial aisle before all the potential groom candidates empty the nave for good.” Her face was devoid of emotion. “I’ll convince him to change his mind before anyone knows.”

“Lady Claire . . .” This was more difficult than he thought. The poor woman obviously felt trapped, and Lord Paul was her unlikely savior. “Do you know where he is right now?”

“No.”

“He’s at the Reynolds, deeply in debt.” He lowered his voice. “Are you hesitant because of the witch’s curse . . . ?”

She glanced at the sky, then scoffed, “Please. You think too narrowly. Some attribute my misfortune to blood curses, curse tablets, and even Roman book curses. I have quite a collection to choose from, with the added talent of losing fiancés to death, disease, and dismemberment. Shall I list them all?”

He smiled at the challenge in her voice. “If you want to share.”

A small defiant smile broke across her lips, and her eyes flared. She was even lovelier than he’d first thought.

“Well, Lord Thant lost a leg after a nasty accident not more than an hour after proposing. Lord Riverton left the country because of a duel. The day he proposed to me, he chose to celebrate in a peeress’s bed. He was found by her husband.” Her voice softened when she added, “Lord Archard died of a fever.” Finally, her eyes betrayed the hurt he expected she must feel over tonight’s events. “Now you understand why I need him.” With a silent dignity, she turned away.

Alex lifted his hand to take hers but thought better of it. Without much talent to deliver comfort, he would rely on nonchalance to hide his unease. His goal had never been to ruin Lord Paul at the expense of another. As long as she didn’t cry, he could finish this.

With a clench of his fist, his resolve returned. He could not afford to lose focus. His actions tonight defined this woman’s future and his. “Tell me exactly, counting Lord Paul, how many fiancés have you had? Four? You’ll find another to marry, I guarantee it.”

With a swift turn, Claire faced him, and her narrowed eyes shot daggers before she inched her chin upward. She grabbed her skirts in her one hand and brushed past. The sheer volume of silk and satin rubbed against his legs and made a heavy swoosh sound. With a flick of her wrist, she dropped the skirts and spun around.

“How did you discover Lord Paul broke the betrothal?” She asked the question with a strength in her voice that spoke volumes about her character and intelligence. “I just received word myself. Last I knew the two of you weren’t friends.”

A twinge of pity smoldered deep inside. The sentiment was something of a novelty since Lord Paul had taught him to doubt his own kindness. With perseverance, he worked through the brief moment of conscience, and certainty came to the rescue. He had worked months for this night and refused to succumb to the tortured look in her eyes.

She had become part of his plan when she took up with Lord Paul. Her part required she marry and become his marchioness, and his part required he keep Claire and her wealth from Lord Paul. Alex knew the man well enough not to trust him. If desperate enough, Lord Paul would likely convince her to escape to Gretna Green.

In theory, the plan had seemed perfect, but it was harder to execute with a real lady, and one he was drawn to, at that.

“News spreads fast. I don’t want to see an innocent ruined by his actions.” Alex lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “How are we going to get you through this scandal unscathed? I saw how upset you were in the ballroom.”

She shivered as if still cold.

“Let me help. We may be able to agree upon a mutually satisfactory solution.”

Claire tilted her head to the side and delivered a mulish look. This woman had a backbone and had recovered from the earlier torment. She wasn’t going to take his proposal lying down like some simpering miss. An immense sense of pleasure rushed through him at the sight of her newfound confidence. He vowed not to allow her to fall prey to Lord Paul.

“Lord Pembrooke, what precisely do you want? If you seek something degenerate, you are mistaken if you think I’d agree.”

“I have no more depraved designs on you than I have on any other young lady in the ballroom.” His body was telling him differently, but he was a gentleman and would never act on it. “My motives are honorable.”

“Why?” She crinkled her brow. “Why help me?”

“Simple. You’re a lovely woman who deserves a better life than what Lord Paul can offer.” He summoned a smile designed to convince her of his sincerity. “You should go back into the ballroom and announce you’re jilting him for another. I’ll stand by your side.”

“I see. Your suggestion is that in front of Lady Anthony’s guests, I personally ruin myself by announcing I’m throwing Lord Paul aside. What will that accomplish but feed the curse?” Claire’s voice held an edge of cynicism. “Did someone put you up to this?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “With my luck I should have expected this type of play. See how many men she can lose. Which club holds the bet? White’s? Brooks’s? What’s the payout?”

“Stop, my lady. Any man would be honored to call you his wife.”

Her lips parted on a sigh as if she didn’t believe him.

Something much like chivalry rose within him. How had a dissipated rake such as Lord Paul sunk his claws into such a wonderful creature? “The truth is I’m trying to save you from another humiliation. Break with him. Now. Tonight. Before anyone knows what he’s done.”

Faint thunder rumbled, and a flash of lightning followed far off in the west. The ornate lanterns bobbed up and down from the sudden gust of wind. Claire’s head jerked in the direction of the coming storm, and her face blanched.

He was losing her interest. “Lady Claire, my reputation suggests I’m honest and above suspicion. Just ask my friends.”

There were only a few he considered to be worth his time. Since Lord Paul’s betrayal, his only close friend was Somerton.

Alex smiled in earnest. “I would never allow you to be humiliated in front of society. I’m trying to help you.” Somehow, he had to convince her of that fact, then the idea of marrying him would be much easier to accept.

She blinked rapidly, then turned back to him and, for an instant, appeared startled to see him there. “That’s very gallant, my lord. Truly, thank you for the effort. But I must leave.”

This night could not end with her escaping, so he tried another tactic. “You need to protect your Wrenwood estate and your wealth from lechers who would feed upon your vulnerability. Not to mention stop that ridiculous curse.”

“I have two.” She held up two gloved fingers.

“Two? Two what? Curses?” No one at his club had uttered a peep about another curse.

“Estates. I have two estates, Wrenwood and Lockhart.” She returned his stare.

Her answer was unexpected, but his business experience had taught him to show nothing. The report from his private investigator had not mentioned additional properties. Thoughts were percolating if she chose to disclose this information.

A razor of lightning split the sky. She flinched and took a step closer to him, but her reaction had nothing to do with him. It was the storm.

Her gaze darted to the exit of the alcove, then she returned her attention to him. With a slight shrug of her shoulders, his evening jacket fell into her hands. She offered it to him. “My lord, good night.” Outside their hideaway, the voices of a man and a woman floated in the air.

Alex put his hand on her shoulder to prevent her escape. “Will you give me some assistance? I seem to have lost my valet.” He quirked an eyebrow. “Besides, if you leave now, whoever is out there will see us.”

She ventured a halfhearted grin and held his jacket in two hands. With a little persistence, he wrestled his way into the evening coat. Her hands smoothed the material across his shoulders and back, causing a pleasant sensation to cascade through him at the slight touch.

Claire took several steps toward the pathway. In a flash, he moved beside her and grasped her elbow. When he brought her close, something flared between them as he gazed into her haunted eyes. Whether the desire to keep her next to him was passion or the need to protect a vulnerable woman made little difference. He pulled her into the shadows and brought his mouth to her ear. “Wait until they pass.” The warmth from her skin beckoned.

A flash of lightning lit the gardens and the alcove.

With a gentle hand, he pushed her against the wall and stood to the side so he blocked her body from view.

A clap of thunder cracked as if the sky were breaking. It rolled into a loud rumble that refused to die.

“Please.” Her whisper grew ragged as she struggled for breath. In one fluid motion, she pulled the lapels of his evening coat toward her. She buried her face against his chest and pressed the rest of her body to his, almost as if she sought sanctuary inside. “Don’t leave me.” Her voice had weakened, the sound fragile, as if she’d break into a million pieces.

“I won’t. I promise.” Alex pulled her tight. One hand sank into the soft satin of her skirts while the other slid around the nape of her neck to hold her close to his chest. It was the most natural thing in the world to hold her. Her body fit perfectly against his.

With the slightest movement, she pulled away. Her eyes wildly searched his. For what, he couldn’t fathom.

He lowered his mouth until his lips were mere inches from tasting her. Madness had consumed him. All he wanted was to kiss her thoroughly until she forgot her fear—until she forgot everything but him.

Her breath mingled with his, and the slight moan that escaped her was intoxicating. Nothing in his entire life felt as right as this moment. He bent to brush his lips against hers.

“Pembrooke? Have you seen Lady—”

Claire leaned back and released his lapels. Without her warmth, he experienced a sudden loss of equilibrium. He turned with a snarl to greet the intruders.

Immediately, Lord Fredrick Honeycutt and his sister, Lady Sophia, took a step back as their eyes grew round as dinner plates.

The first to recover, Honeycutt announced, “I see you found Lady Claire.” He bowed his head slightly, then lowered his voice. “The Duke of Langham is looking for his niece and is directly behind us.”

A sense of wariness flooded Alex’s mind when Claire’s uncle strolled forward and came into sharp focus. As he stood, his feet spread shoulder width apart, the duke’s presence commanded everyone’s attention. His visage held the hint of a smile, but the two large fists resting by his sides were the real barometer of his mood. “Claire, are you all right?” The affection in his voice was at odds with the fury flashing in his eyes.

“I’m fine.” She stepped out of Alex’s shadow but stayed close to his side.

Surprised by her decision not to run to her uncle, Alex placed his hand on the small of her back to give her courage.

Claire’s cousin, Michael Cavensham, Marquess of McCalpin, stopped abruptly at his father’s side, followed by his younger brother, Lord William. Both men stood approximately the same height as the duke.

With grim amusement, Alex considered how he might scale such a wall of Cavensham men and come out alive.

A faint rumble of thunder faded. Even the elements of nature were leery of a confrontation with the duke and his sons.

“What are you doing with my cousin?” McCalpin made a move to charge Alex, but the duke held his arm out to warn his heir away.

Lord William stood on the other side of his father. The duke’s youngest child, Lady Emma, joined their group. She called out, “Claire? Do you need my help?”

Alex fully expected Claire to launch into some type of explanation as to why they were alone. Instead, with a slight tilt of her head, she turned so her back faced the gathering gawkers. If it was a move designed to safeguard him, she needn’t have bothered. He’d shield her from the growing crowd.

“I’m sorry.” Her warm breath caressed his cheek much like a kiss.

“Don’t be,” he whispered. With a slide of his hand, he took hers. With their fingers intertwined, he gently coaxed her to stand by his side. He raised her hand to his lips in a slow motion so the crowd had an unfettered view.

Her eyes widened.

“Everyone, please give us your attention.” His deep voice carried through the garden so even the stragglers heard. He held her gaze and smiled.

The crowd quieted.

“It gives me great pleasure to announce Lady Claire’s engagement to Lord Paul officially ended tonight.”

“Have you lost your mind?” she whispered.

Murmurs broke through the gathered assembly.

Claire tried to break free of his grasp, but he refused to let go and gently squeezed her fingers. “Trust me.” The soft words held a tenderness only for her. To the throng, he continued in a voice that resonated, “Because Lady Claire has agreed to become my wife.”

Honeycutt’s eyebrows hit the top of his forehead, while his sister seemed ready to twirl into a faint.

Emma darted forward into the alcove. “Claire!”

McCalpin followed Emma. “Pembrooke, so help me God, if this is your idea of a joke…” 

Langham pushed his way into the arched doorway, and the breadth of his shoulders hid the view from the onlookers. “Sweetheart, what is this?”

Alex answered before she could respond. “I’m protecting her from being dishonored by a morally bankrupt rake.”

The duke raised an eyebrow. His skepticism melted into a mask of ducal haughtiness. “Lord Pembrooke, I shall see you at Langham Hall tomorrow to discuss your obligations to my niece.”

“It will be my pleasure, Your Grace.” He turned and, without a care who witnessed his next move, brought his mouth to Claire’s ear. With the slightest touch, he caressed her lobe with his lips. “You will not regret tonight. I swear it.”

“You’re wasting your time.” She walked toward her uncle and never looked back.

Relief coursed through Alex’s blood. He had accomplished tonight’s goal with the unsuspecting help of Honeycutt. Marriage to Lady Claire might have been by a circuitous route, but forcing her to marry him saved him the time of a long courtship and enduring ridiculous talk of the curse from the ton.

With an abundant sense of satisfaction, he left the alcove. When he passed a sculpture of Eros, the distinctive curl of its marble lips drew his attention.

The damn thing grinned at him.

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