One Wilde Night

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Overview

When it came to marriage, Olivia Parker knew better than to expect a love match, but she couldn't hide her outrage when her father bartered her to Brandon Wilde, Earl of Marlborough. Her father's money would satisfy Wilde's inherited debts, her new husband's noble blood would insure the Parkers' entree into the aristocracy--and Olivia would have precious little chance to protest. Then she spent one glorious night in her husband's arms--and discovered that she wanted to stay there. But her handsome, brooding ...
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Overview

When it came to marriage, Olivia Parker knew better than to expect a love match, but she couldn't hide her outrage when her father bartered her to Brandon Wilde, Earl of Marlborough. Her father's money would satisfy Wilde's inherited debts, her new husband's noble blood would insure the Parkers' entree into the aristocracy--and Olivia would have precious little chance to protest. Then she spent one glorious night in her husband's arms--and discovered that she wanted to stay there. But her handsome, brooding spouse seemed to feel otherwise. The morning after their wedding, Olivia awoke at his down-at-heels country estate and found him gone. Well, she wasn't going to let him go, not without a fight--and as she prepared to follow him to London, she knew exactly how to convince him that passion was not the only thing they shared.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780821767283
  • Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 11/1/2000
  • Series: Zebra Historical Romance Series
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 4.24 (w) x 6.86 (h) x 0.86 (d)

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Prologue

England, 1857

"I do so love a carriage ride in the middle of the day!" Aunt Edwina exclaimed, clapping her pudgy hands together.

Olivia Parker smiled at the kind-faced woman sitting across from her.

"Madame LeBlanc promised to show me the finest silks and laces that have just arrived from France." She lifted her shoulders in glee. Curly gray hair framed her cheerful round face, and her bright blue eyes peered at the world with excitement from behind wire-rimmed spectacles. "I simply cannot wait to make our selection."

Olivia sighed and turned her gaze out the window to the bustling city streets. She despised these afternoons filled with fittings and endless discussions of fabrics. She would much rather be at home curled up with Anthony Trollope's latest offering, Barchester Towers, or galloping down Rotten Row at dawn on her feisty mare than engaged in the frivolous task of selecting fashionable gowns.

But her father had told her time and time again women were not to indulge in such ridiculous pastimes. She was far more intellectually inclined than was seemly. Among the fairer sex, submission was all that was required. Her sole obligation in life was to be obedient, reserved, and graceful. Everything else would be taken care of by the men in her life--first by her father, and in due course by her husband. Her every need would be seen to by someone else. In short, she was not required to think.

But she did think. She tried not to, but she couldn't help herself. She possessed a natural curiosity, which she managed to rein in most of the time for the benefit of her father.

"We are here!" Edwina cried, adjusting herstraw-brimmed bonnet. "Olivia! Attend me, child!" she snapped. "Have you not heard a word I've said? Dear me, we will be late for your fittings. Come, child! Madame LeBlanc is the most expensive modiste in town. She simply does not wait."

Olivia rolled her eyes heavenward. "Yes," she sighed, alighting from the warm luxury of the carriage's inviting squab seats. "How could I forget?"

Disregarding her niece's lackluster attitude, Edwina waddled across the street and entered the stylish shop. She immediately greeted the exclusive proprietor and monopolized the conversation. Gabbing about the style and cut of gown she would like fashioned in only the finest brown taffeta, she took no notice of Olivia's apathy.

Gazing longingly out the shop window, Olivia sighed. Bond Street offered enticing treats, and the small elite shop was terribly stuffy. A sly grin stole across her lips, and she darted a glance over her shoulder. Judging from her aunt's chatter, she and Madame LeBlanc would be occupied for hours.

"I shan't be a moment, Aunt," Olivia called out, opening the shop door. "I need a breath of air."

Before her aunt could stop her, Olivia slipped from the elegant dressmaker's shop. She started down the street, her gaze riveted to the luxuries displayed in the shop windows. In no time at all, the shopkeepers' tempting displays had her rapt. She took no notice of where her journey led her.

Drawing in a deep breath of crisp winter air, she smiled. It was wonderful to walk along without her aunt's constant cheerful banter to distract her. She felt free and, for the first time in her life, marvelously independent.

She had been walking for quite some time when she noticed a drastic change in the complexion of the neighborhood. The opulent shops close to Madame LeBlanc's had given way to shops that were somewhat dingy, and fashionable, well-dressed pedestrians were scarce--in fact, nonexistent. Before she could retrace her steps toward Bond Street, a grimy looking young man lurched out at her from a nearby doorway.

"'Ere now, Miss, where d'ya think yer goin'?" he inquired, his dirt-smudged face unnervingly close to hers.

Alarm rippled down her spine. She took a shaky step backward. Instinctively, she clutched her ermine muff to her chest. "I was"--she glanced about her for an expedient avenue of escape--"walking," she offered lamely.

"Oh, aye. Were yer now?" he mumbled, his rapacious gaze jerking to her neck, where the ermine edging of her black velvet pelisse parted to reveal a pearl and diamond lavaliere.

Fear took root in her heart. Before she could cry for help, the ruffian snatched the gold chain, violently ripping the pendant from her person. She gasped in shock and tried unsuccessfully to defend herself and reclaim what was rightfully hers, but he cuffed her hard across the face.

A groan of pain escaped her, and she tumbled backward and fell. She knew a moment of terror as she hit the ground. Her eyes fluttered shut in horrified disbelief. This could not be happening to her.

And then, blessedly, she heard a deep, commanding male voice. "You there! What the devil are you about?"

The curt remark was followed by the muffled sounds of the startled thief scampering down the street.

Dazed, she tried to set herself to rights. A firm grip closed around her upper arm. She was pulled to her feet.

Still shaken by the vicious encounter, she uttered a frantic cry and tried to wrench free from yet another assailant. But a warm, velvety masculine voice gave her pause. "It's all right. I am not going to hurt you."

She glanced up and found herself staring into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. Her throat went dry. All possibility of rational thought vanished. Standing before her was the most gorgeous specimen of masculinity she'd ever beheld. Eyes as blue as the sea, hair the color of rich sable, and broad cheekbones that flanked a long aquiline nose which suited his aristocratic good looks all gave him an air of male superiority.

Her knees went weak. She leaned against him, welcoming the refuge of his rock-hard chest.

"You've had quite a scare." His voice was low and wonderfully comforting. Her eyes fluttered shut, and she reveled in his strong, comforting embrace. "You're perfectly safe now. No one is going to hurt you," he assured her.

When she displayed not the slightest inclination toward pulling away, he took a gentle, albeit firm, hold of her slender shoulders and set her away from him.

Between the harrowing experience of assault and robbery and the astonishing gallantry of her gorgeous rescuer, she was numb. As if in a dream state, she could do no more than stare at him. In a smart swallow-tailed uniform of red and gold, a black bearskin hat tucked beneath one arm, her intrepid savior was obviously an officer in one of the Queen's regiments.

Most of the officers returning from the Crimea during the past year had donned fashionable beards, but somehow the muttonchops and full mustache were oddly out of place on her champion's face.

Knitting his brow, he examined her with a critical eye.

She was surprised by his stern, jaded countenance and the hard lines that edged his full mouth. His decidedly masculine, chiseled features were somewhat intimidating. Even so, she longed to reach out and touch the cleft in his proud chin and smooth the deep creases in his forehead.

In sharp contrast to his reassuring voice, his frown deepened.

"Are you quite all right?"

She seemed incapable of replying.

His compelling blue eyes searched her face, and his gaze drifted lower, drinking her in with shocking thoroughness. She flushed several degrees hotter beneath his lazy, heated regard. She had never been brazenly admired by a man before. Her heart fluttered in her chest. It was rather exciting to be on the receiving end of a purely wicked scrutiny.

"Did that vagabond hurt you?" The sharpness of his tone wrenched her from her fanciful reverie.

She shook her head. Rubbing her sore neck with her dirt-smudged glove, she managed to find her voice. "No, he--my pendant! He stole my pendant!" she cried in dismay.

The officer's lips thinned. "Yes, well," he muttered, glancing in the direction the thug had fled, "he is well on his way now, much the richer for his trouble. It was foolish of you to be out alone. Defenseless young ladies should never be without an escort," he told her curtly. "You are fortunate not to have been badly hurt."

Her spine straightened. His choleric, condescending tone nettled her. Defenseless young ladies, indeed. As if she were a helpless child fresh from a nanny's care! She was not defenseless--nor was she all that young, really. He made it sound like an unforgivable flaw to be under the ripe old age of twenty-five. It was decidedly unflattering, particularly when she was mooning over him and imagining him as her dashing, romantic rescuer.

Regardless of how irritating she found his disdainful manner, however, she owed him a debt of gratitude.

"As it happens," she explained with surprising aplomb, given that her insides were wobbling rather badly, "I am not without escort. My aunt is shopping nearby. I," she admitted with some embarrassment, "stepped out for a moment and ended up"--she surveyed her questionable surroundings--"here."

The hard edges of his mouth turned down. "Yes, well, I suspect that will be the first--and the last--time you venture out alone."

A rueful smile touched her lips. "Yes," she admitted with a pang of sadness. Her gloved hand touched the spot on her green silk gown where her beloved pendant had once lain. "I warrant you are correct."

A smile softened his otherwise harsh features. "I am sorry you had to learn such a cruel lesson. Was the pendant of great value?"

She nodded her head, reflecting unhappily on her loss. "Yes," she said quietly, "it was very dear to me."

"In that case," he remarked, sincerity shining in his deep blue eyes, "I am doubly sorry."

She looked up at him, and, offering him a hesitant smile, said softly, "I ... thank you for your concern, kind sir."

"You must allow me to see you safely back to your aunt." Taking her arm, he proceeded to escort her back to Bond Street.

Chagrined by her lack of judgment, she murmured, "Again, I am indebted to you, sir."

He frowned. "Nonsense," he said sharply. "Not at all. It is the least I can do."

As they walked, an awkward silence fell over them. Clearing her throat, she hastened to remark, "I very much suspect you saved my life."

He pulled a modest face. "I sincerely doubt your life was at stake," he drawled, "merely your riches."

Despite her raw nerves, she managed a smile. "Then it is fortunate indeed that I have none."

His hooded gaze swept over her. "My dear girl, with beauty such as yours, a woman does not need a fortune."

Flustered, she lowered her lashes and hoped the brim of her black velvet bonnet hid the deep flush in her cheeks. A secretive smile curled her lips. Her encounter with the thief had been blessedly eclipsed by her breathtakingly handsome companion's charm.

As if on air, she accompanied her dashing hero down the street. Unfortunately, their stroll came to an end far too quickly. When they reached Madame LeBlanc's, Olivia caught sight of her aunt. Edwina was bumbling about in a tizzy, demanding something be done to find her lost niece. Their driver was attempting to console her. From the looks of things, poor old Jim was achieving little success.

Her rescuer glanced in the direction of the distressed matron, who was flailing her arms in the air. One end of his mouth lifted slightly. "Your aunt, I presume?"

Olivia heaved a sigh. "I am afraid so."

"I wager you are quite safe in her hands. Only the most stalwart criminal would dare approach such a formidable protector," he drawled with dry humor.

Olivia could contain neither her amusement nor the thrill of excitement that rippled through her at the feel of his breath warm and soft against her cheek. Pressing her gloved hand to her mouth, she tried to stifle her mirth.

After suffering the ranting of her overset aunt, Olivia climbed into the refuge of her father's black lacquered carriage and leaned out the window to address the handsome stranger. "I cannot thank you enough for coming to my aid, gracious sir."

"I only wish I had arrived in time to retrieve your jewels from the villain who stole them," he replied, pressing a kiss on her gloved hand. He gazed deeply into her eyes. "Assisting lovely damsels in distress," he murmured softly, "is an honor I find difficult to resist."

A rosy glow warmed her cheeks, and she smiled shyly.

With that, he hit the top of the conveyance and gave the order to drive on.

As the carriage rolled over the cobblestones toward home, Olivia sat back. Hugging her arms to her waist, she expelled a blissful sigh.

"Gracious me," her aunt cried, nearly hysterical, "when I think of the fate that might have befallen you were it not for that gallant officer"--she splayed her hand across her large bosom--"I could faint dead on the spot." She moaned and waved her lacy handkerchief to and fro to fan herself. "What will your father say?"

Olivia was only vaguely aware of her aunt's agitation. At present, she did not much care for her father's fine opinion. Her main preoccupation was with the officer with the arresting good looks who had come to her aid.

Beaming from ear to ear, she leaned against the soft velvet squabs and smiled. He'd called her lovely and he'd kissed her hand. She expelled a dreamy sigh. He was the most stunning man on whom she'd ever laid eyes.

Of course, she mentally chided herself, he was also the only eligible young man she'd ever had occasion to meet. Recalling his dazzling smile, she quickly disregarded that point. He was irresistibly charming--a courtly gentleman if ever there was one.

Not that she knew the first thing about men. Aside from those who frequently dined at Belgrave Square, the tall handsome man with eyes like a clear blue summer sky and hair as dark as coal was the first man with whom she'd exchanged more than three words. To date, she had led a completely sheltered life.

Her brow wrinkled. Perhaps too protected. If this afternoon's nightmarish experience was any indication, she was grievously ill-prepared for the challenges of the world. Until today, she had never come face to face with the seedy side of London.

However, she was not so naive as to believe that outside her cozy, safe environment life wasn't austere and cruel. Her assailant's dirt-smudged, angry face took hold in her mind. She shuddered. Without the protection of a man, a woman was a helpless victim.

A secretive smile curled her lips. Closing her eyes, she sat back and expelled an elated sigh. She would be pleased to accept the role of frail female--provided, of course, that her gallant protector cut as princely a figure as the chivalrous young officer.

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