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There was a wolf at the wedding.
Emma Boscastle, the widowed Viscountess Lyons, was not sure whether it had been a guest or one of the maidservants who had whispered the unsettling observation in passing during the wedding reception. At first she thought nothing of it. The remark could have referred to one of their host’s large hunting dogs or merely to a ravenous guest.
A lady did not lessen herself by a listening to idle gossip. By profession she was obligated to set an example to others and not to indulge her prurient curiosities. This was, after all, the wedding of one of her former students, held in the Portman Square home of the bride’s in-laws, not a common countryside assembly.
Several minutes into the nuptial breakfast, however, the remark took on a more intriguing design. She’d just decided that the handsome gentleman standing across the room had an appealing air of the disreputable about him. Which would explain why she could not resist staring at him and why she ought to stop. Sadly enough, the fact that he was accompanied by three of her own brothers, Lords Heath, Drake, and Devon Boscastle, only enhanced his dangerous aura. He was probably a person to be avoided. Heaven knows she would have avoided her own family if she were not related and therefore obligated to offer them guidance.
Her suspicions about the attractive stranger were only confirmed after the champagne toast when he turned suddenly and smiled at her over the top of the wedding cake. She returned his roguish smile before she knew what she was doing. His perceptive hazel eyes positively twinkled with mischief.
Did she know him? Surely she’d remember a man with his commanding presence unless he had never been presented to her in polite company. One had to admit he pleased the eye with his dark, wheat-blond hair, chiseled features, and broad-shouldered frame.
She hazarded another thoughtful glance at his angular profile. He exuded the restless energy of a wolf in gentleman’s attire—A shock of realization went down her arms. It couldn’t be. Her brothers had not brought the notorious Adrian Ruxley, Viscount Wolverton, to Miss Marshall’s wedding.
A wolf at the wedding. The scandalmongers referred to him as a professional mercenary. If one believed the worst, he was a soldier of fortune who’d turned his back on his aristocratic upbringing to spite his father and had chosen to fight pirates in foreign lands.
Emma’s younger sister Chloe, admittedly not the most unbiased of witnesses, claimed that Lord Wolverton was misunderstood, a valiant rogue and loyal friend to his select circle of friends. Emma suspected that the truth lay somewhere in the middle of these differing opinions.
Would her brothers have dared to invite such a disputatious person to a wedding?
Of course they would. The dear scoundrels might be settling into their respective marriages, but they were still possessed of the scandalous Boscastle spirit. Honestly, nothing was sacred in this family. Her siblings picked the most controversial of companions, men and women that proper Society scorned. In fact, Emma had been so afraid that one of her brothers would embarrass her that she’d missed half the ceremony keeping an eye on the three of them.
Still, the wedding had gone off like a dream; despite the bride’s repeated avowals of gratitude toward her mentor, Emma had modestly refused to acknowledge the role she had played in making this a memorable event.
She was a woman who cherished tradition. Observance of formality almost enabled one to forget the vulgarities that existed outside the polite world.
More than anything she enjoyed a good wedding. Another breath of hope gently released into stale humanity. The bonhomie. The beautiful gowns. The dignity of ceremony and commitment.
And then, at the conclusion, came the lyrical clink of bone china as one savored a well-prepared breakfast. She gazed in pleasure at the heirloom silver polished and regally placed upon white damask tablecloths. Detail. Lovely detail. It made one believe that life could and should be marked by order and beauty.
“I shall be attending your nuptials next, Emma,” her cousin Charlotte teased, appearing at her side. “The girls are taking bets on when Sir William will offer for you.”
“Taking bets? The students of my academy?” Emma laughed reluctantly. “He and I have not even discussed our future.” Although Sir William Larkin, a gentleman barrister she’d met only a few months ago, had more than hinted at marriage during the few plays and picnics they had attended together.
“Wagering on my wedding,” she murmured in mock disapproval. “I don’t know what our school has become.”
“The best,” Charlotte said with an exuberant voice that made Emma wonder how many glasses of champagne her cousin had imbibed. Charlotte was by nature reserved, but one always sensed a certain rebellion simmering beneath.
Still, Emma appreciated the hard-won praise. As the foundress of a small ladies’ academy that was located in her brother and sister-in-law’s London home, she took a personal responsibility for her pupils. Those ladies who graduated proudly referred to themselves as The Lionesses of London. In other words, they had survived Lady Lyons’s intense guidance to emerge as perfect young gentlewomen.
If only on the outside.
She could not be expected to extend her influence when they left her, unfortunately, and her current pride of cubs was showing quite a wild bent that absorbed all her energy.
“Speaking of the best, where have the girls gone?” she asked. She’d brought her four oldest students to the wedding in the belief one should put etiquette into practice to perfect it.
“The last time I saw them they had just sighted Lord Wolverton and were begging Heath for an introduction.”
Emma blanched. Every conceivable form of social ruin flashed through her mind. “And you allowed this?”
“Well, I didn’t—do stop worrying, Emma. Heath would never permit the girls to come to harm.”
Emma glanced around the room in alarm. “Dear, dear. It isn’t the girls who appear to be in danger. Do you see how they behave the minute they’re unleashed?”
“Unleashed?” Charlotte asked, startled. “Is that the word that you used?”
“Just look for yourself.”
Lord Wolverton stood rather helplessly in the center of the female circle looking . . . like a man desperate to escape. It was an image one could hardly reconcile with his reputation as a professional mercenary.
At the moment, however, it was not Lord Wolverton whose conduct deserved criticism, no matter what his past. It was the three girls encircling him with all the subtlety of milkmaids on the common green. Erupting into raucous giggles. Fluttering their fans and eyeing his lordship as if they had forgotten every subtle precept Emma had hammered into their young heads.
She swept forward, forcing herself not to look at their gentleman victim. “Girls, may I have a word with you at the table?”
Three pairs of ivory fans snapped to attention. Chastened by the voice of she whom her own family called the Dainty Dictator, they dutifully trudged toward the table before which Emma waited.
“I shall say little.” She gazed at their downbent heads. “Until later. For now you should be congratulating the newlywed couple and, one dares to hope, setting your aim on achieving a similar state for yourselves.”
“But he’s a duke’s son—”
“Silence. He is notorious, and—” Emma broke off in consternation.
Girls being girls, she feared she would only whet their female curiosity by adding details of the man’s adventurous history.
It was her opinion that most young women harbored a secret attraction to forbidden gentlemen. Not that Emma had ever been so afflicted in her past. As the sister of five Boscastle brothers, she had observed one too many wicked males at work to harbor any romantic illusions about marrying one.
“There are only three of you,” she said suddenly. “Someone is missing. Where is Miss Butterfield?”
From the Paperback edition.