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Christian Delaford, the Duke of Haverton, must be married by midnight of his birthday or forfeit his heritage to a distant relation. After years of living a hedonistic life in the Orient, the thought of binding himself forever to an insipid English Miss fairly curls his toes. London's current 'diamond of the first water', however, changes his mind. In Elizabeth, he finds a bold and daring woman who harbors a terrifying secret. He vows to chase Miss Temptation, to the ends of the earth if needs be, and save her from the forces that would tear them both apart.
A country road in Devonshire, 1819
Outside the stately carriage, the English summer night was ripe with the verdant, lush scents of the countryside, but Edward Huntley, Lord Stanhope, due to his self-indulgent, spoiled temperament, took no notice. Within the fine appointment of his conveyance, he lolled back drunkenly, feeling more than pleased with himself, taking note only of the odor of strong brandy and cheaply purchased sex.
His pale brown hair, slightly thinning though he was barely thirty, bore a dishevelment matched only by the dissolution of his aristocratic features. Once he'd been handsome, a catch, as the dowagers of the ton could profess. Moneyed, titled, and of ancient and proud lineage, no more than four years ago he'd had his pick of the young women making their coming out.
Naturally, he'd chosen the best.
The pale, auburn-haired bitch Charlotte, Lady Grayson, had become his bride.
With a disparaging sound, he tore the rumpled cravat from his throat and tossed it aside. Taking an engraved silver flask from his pocket, he drank thirstily and smiled in memory. Charlotte, now dead these past two years from a broken neck, had proven herself a spiritless woman, who had cowered at the sight of him.
He'd wanted her to fight him as her sister surely would have. Even now, thoughts of Elizabeth, younger by mere seconds, made him harden with lust and thwarted desire.
Of the two, she had been his choice.
Charlotte was sweet, mild-tempered, and so accomplished in all the ladylike pursuits, she was considered by most a paragon of virtue. Elizabeth, on the other hand, seemed less inclined toward the prim and perfectnuances so revered in polite society, though Edward suspected she was every bit as well trained, yet reluctant to show it.
On Charlotte's beautiful face, every emotion was noted, and had he been a man of a sentimental bent, he might have drooled and fawned over her as others did. There was a ready sweetness about her that drew the eye of the chivalrous male. She had her pick of available men, yet she'd chosen him.
Elizabeth, damn her beautiful soul, was the polar extreme of her sister. Haughty and cold, she made no effort to attract offers of marriage, and it was clear to all that she preferred having another season or two before finally choosing a mate. This female was in no hurry to wed, unlike the eager Charlotte, who dreamed of ridiculous romantic love and babes to fill her nursery. Silly twit, Charlotte. They'd had their coming out together since they were twins. Identical in appearance and beauty, they'd caused a stir unequaled in Edward's memory.
Every attempt to interest the spirited Elizabeth had been met with polite, steadfast refusal. Instead, she directed his attentions quite purposely to Charlotte. Hell, he knew Charlotte already thought herself in love with him, but he had wanted her twin. His insides had twisted with desire for her. Of course, every member of the ton knew the girls were blessed with fine backgrounds and dowries of significance, yet if he were to choose ... well, he wanted a woman of spirit who would understand and enjoy his particular style.
Drinking deeply again, Edward cursed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Damn Henry, Lord Grayson, to perdition and back!
Old fashioned in the extreme, the gentleman had calmly rejected his offer for Elizabeth's hand. No, Charlotte being the oldest, if only by a mere flicker of time, must marry first.
Seeing no alternative, considering Charlotte's great beauty and wealth, Edward consented, promising with a gentleman's handshake never to mention his first preference. The old fool had wanted to spare Charlotte's tender feelings.
They'd been married shortly thereafter.
Edward laughed and drank deeply again from the silver flask. Settled with the notion of wedding Charlotte, he'd put on the performance of a lifetime. Wooing, cajoling, stealing discreet kisses. Lord help him! He'd written poetry for the stupid chit, knowing as he read each verse that after their wedding night, he'd have her well in hand.
Pulling the elaborately engraved gold watch from his vest pocket, he noted the time left until he reached his estate.
Tonight he'd gone into the village for a pint or two and a quick tumble with his favorite tavern whore. Narrowing his eyes on the silver-headed cane tossed on the opposite seat, a thin smile graced his face. Good old Molly knew how to beg and plead and make a man feel like the master of his universe. As always, she knew what to expect and she cried so pitifully, though Edward knew she enjoyed the games they shared. Now that the London season was finished and he'd returned to his country home to summer, he expected to visit her bed often.
Molly loved the bite of his cane, his hand. She loved to scream in terror as he took his pleasure.
His smile broadened with sadistic glee as his thoughts returned to the past. When he'd stormed inside the master chamber and taken her brutally on their wedding night, his silly wife had seemed a stunned little mouse. Edward laughed outright at the memory, vowing he could still hear Charlotte's whimpering cries.
How funny it was to think of how she cowered naked and weeping in the corner of their room. How hilarious it was when he'd slapped her. Her whining, mewling voice begged and pleaded with him to stop.
During that pleasant interlude, he'd imagined it was Elizabeth whom he tamed. She was so very unlike Charlotte. What a challenge! No, here was a woman who wouldn't cower and beg. She would fight, dignified to the very end. The vision of sensual battle still had the ability to make him harden.
Startled sounds from outside tore him from his musings.
"Hold there, sir!"
His coachman shouted. The carriage jerked as the horses reared and whinnied in distress as the sodden Edward struggled to sit upright.
"Stand and Deliver! Stand and deliver, you bloody sod!"
A voice possessed with the slight reedy sound of youth swirled through the night air with enough menace to make him straighten with alarm, but that was a fleeting alarm at best. Bravado, induced by his inebriated state, quickly replaced his initial fear.
The carriage jolted to a halt, but Edward managed to pull out the loaded pistol from under the carriage seat. Ruffians abounded in the countryside where gentry were known to summer, but Edward vowed the miscreant wouldn't gain a single sovereign from him. He was a peer of the Realm. An aristocrat. He'd never been robbed before and vowed, as he tucked the pistol into his waistband, that he'd never be a victim of such mischief.
"Out, good sir!" the bandit called.
Edward mustered his aplomb and stepped from the carriage, feeling slightly ill at the sight of the bounder, dressed all in black, mounted atop an equally black stallion. The horse's mane feathered like silk over the inky breeze, but Edward's gaze focused instead on the man who pointed the pistol directly at his nose.
The bandit, slight of build, surely just a youth, wore an old-fashioned tricorne hat and the well-cut clothes of a gentleman in mourning. Shadows darted over the uncovered lower half of his pale face, lending an eerie light to the strange scenario.
"Night out with the ladies, m'lord?" came the mocking voice.
Edward stood, furious and shaking. Grasping the open carriage door for balance, suddenly hating his drunkenness and his ineptitude, he struggled for air. "Bounder! How dare you," he gasped, the sight of the pistol at nose level making him feel like a helpless child. Whatever fearlessness he once possessed evaporated under this very real threat. "I am a Lord of the Realm. You will hang for this night's fancy."
The brigand laughed with a husky drawl. "Only if I'm caught, and you, my fine worm, are too inebriated to be believed. Yes, surely the local magistrate would give me a medal for humiliating the likes of you.
Outrageously, the bandit tipped his hat. "Fine, upstanding fellows like your lordship shouldn't wander about on dark nights like this. What have you been up to, hmm? Beating helpless women? Maiming children? Perhaps you've kicked a puppy or two?"
Moonlight illuminated the ghastly eyes that peered out from behind the mask, and Edward knew with certainty that this was no ordinary highwayman. He knew too much!
Cold laughter ripped through the night air, making Edward shiver. A warm trickle ran down the legs of his fashionable trousers, infuriating him.
The laughter at his expense stopped almost as soon as it began as the pistol moved threateningly. "I've heard tales about you, my good sir," the youth in black whispered. "I've heard of your mistreatment of women. Of your cruelty. Of how you murder those who do not win favor."
The words reeked with venom, and Edward felt his stomach pitch.
The thief lowered his pistol a fraction and sat silently as if awaiting comment. The night air was fraught with winds, yet Edward heard the deep sigh and thought, hopefully, that he might be spared.
"Take what you want; just leave me be," he muttered, reaching inside his jacket for the silver flask."
"Ssssss. Easy now," the bandit hissed. The devil's beast he rode skittered sideways and snorted a ghastly breath. "Toss the piece to the ground. Carefully. I am quite nervous and wouldn't want this pistol to discharge unnecessarily."
The flask was dropped soundlessly on the dirt road. A silent figure dressed in the clothes of a common man rushed forward from the cover of trees to fetch the booty.
The accomplice wore a mask of rough burlap, giving him the appearance of a deranged scarecrow. Without a sound, he tossed up the piece of silver and moved a distance away as if wary of this night's activity.
The mounted highwayman showed no such fear.
Snatching the flask midair, the bandit stuffed it into a dark bag tucked around the saddle horn. He turned his attention once again and moved the pistol in a menacing manner. "Now the rest. I'll make a good haul from this night's work, my fine lord."
The emphasis on his title made Edward pause, but then he reached for the engraved watch he always carried. It had been a wedding gift from Charlotte, and though it held no sentimental value, it was expensive and beautiful. He didn't want to part with it anymore than he wanted to be deprived of the coin in his pocket.
The bandit might very well murder me, he thought wildly, but when he reached for the watch, he felt the cold, steel butt of his weapon and grabbed it instead.
Without hesitation, knowing he was a marksman of ability, he lifted the gun.
He sorely misjudged the thief. A blast rent the air as a bullet pierced the fleshy part of Edward's thigh. With a loud cry, he fell in agony on the dusty road, the butt of the pistol clutched harmlessly in his hand before falling from nerveless fingers.
When Edward, still grasping his wounded leg, mustered his courage, he opened one eye to see the bandit standing over him, the rising winds whipping the tails of his coat behind him. Edward's coachman had, the worthless knave, run for cover, leaving him alone, helpless, and afraid.
The menace in black laughed softly. "An inch or three upward and to the left might have spared many a lady of your attentions, my lord."
"D-don't kill me," he whined. "Please, don't kill me."
The bandit's face was covered from nose to forehead with cloth. From it, two holes were cut, leaving only a pair of shining eyes to show. Those eyes flashed and burned into him, and he knew suddenly, with startling clarity that he might very well die this night. Edward began to blubber like a well-disciplined child. "P-Please, man, don't kill me. Take what you will, but leave me to see tomorrow. Please, I beg you."
"You worthless dog! Why should I?" the youth spat. His raspy voice trembled with ill-suppressed fury. "I know your reputation, Lord Worm, and have no doubt the world would be a better place without you in it. You hurt women. You, in fact, delight in torturing them. Me, I like women, think them treasures. Tell me, my lord, have you ever treated any woman as a treasure?"
Edward sputtered and lay there like a limp carp.
"I thought not." The bandit placed his boot heel on Edward's throat with punishing force before he carefully reloaded his pistol, never pausing in his relentless stare. Gesturing to his accomplice, he said, "Come, my friend, search the pockets of this worm and relieve him of his worldly goods."
Within seconds, surprisingly small hands relieved him of his money bag and watch. Eyes closed, he heard the rustle of the carriage and knew his silver-handled walking stick had been taken as well.
Silence fell then, and Edward warily opened his eyes. Burning pain shot through his thigh, and it took all his energy not to vomit on the dusty road.
The black-garbed highwayman eyed the watch and sucked in a low breath before pocketing it with a low, unheard oath. If possible, the husky voice lowered into a shaky timbre. "Now as for you--"
"Please, please do not kill me. How could you live with murder on your hands?"
Clearing his throat, Edward's nemesis leveled steely, moon-shadowed eyes upon him.
"Ahhh. Murder. What a thorny subject!" He removed the toe of his boot from Edward's throat. "Have you ever done murder, I wonder?"
"No, never," he whined incoherent now in his effort to hang on to tenuous humanity. "Vengeful gossip! That's all it was, I swear! She fell. I swear. It was an accident. She was clumsy. It was an accidental push. I'd had too much to drink. Please," he blubbered. He lost his bowels and howled out loud at the indignity.
Silence hung in the air, momentarily stilled perhaps in anticipation.
"Just as I thought." Slowly, the night-shadowed thief reached into his coat and withdrew a second pistol. Before he could blink, the brigand aimed it at the kneecap of his injured leg and fired.
Posted October 4, 2011
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