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IT WAS, LADY ELIZABETH BANNING thought ruefully as she looked up into the reddening face of her latest fianc - , all the fault of her damnable temper. Again.
“Are you telling me that you're jilting me?” William demanded incredulously. The Earl of Rosen was of average height, with a slightly stocky build that Beth suspected would, in middle age, run sadly to fat. But just now, at age twenty-six, his square jaw, regular features, speaking blue eyes, and thick fair hair worn ? la Brutus were enough to ensure that he was held to be a very handsome man by those of the fairer sex—and which of them were not?—interested in such things. Of course, that assessment was undoubtedly helped along by the fact that he was also possessed of an income of something in the nature of twenty thousand pounds a year.
Which she was, regrettably, in the process of whistling down the wind.
“I am not jilting you. I am telling you that I feel we should not suit.”
Standing in front of one of the pair of tall windows, thickly curtained in claret velvet, that adorned the far wall of the small, book-lined library of Richmond House—the palatial London home of her brother-in-law the Duke of Richmond—with William less than an arm's length away, Beth was conscious of a draft curling around her shoulders. They were left bare by the fashionable d - colletage of her slim, high-waisted frock of gleaming gold silk, its color chosen with care to set off her fiery curls. Really, the room seemed surprisingly cold despite the fact that a fire crackled in the hearth in deference to the crisp temperatures of the early April night. Instead of shivering, though, she folded her arms over her chest, lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, and held William's increasingly incensed gaze without flinching. Conversations of this sort were never easy, as she had learned from way too much experience. Still, it had to be done, and she had already put it off too long.
“You cannot be serious. My mother is here.” William was practically quivering with outrage. His mother, Lady Rosen, was one of the ton's highest sticklers, and over the course of the last two Seasons had made no secret of her opinion that Beth was fast. Beth had little doubt that William's announcement that he meant to marry her had brought floods of tears and recriminations down upon his head.
“I am really very sorry.” Beth looked up at him remorsefully. The idea that he had stood up to his formidable mother for her made her feel even guiltier. She was sorry. Their engagement, which at the moment was known only to their immediate families, was of a little more than a week's duration, and she had regretted it within hours of accepting his offer. She should have told him so immediately, of course. But he was such an eligible parti, while she, at twenty-one and embarked on her third Season, was no longer in the first blush of youth and well past the age at which most of her contemporaries married. Having brought William up to scratch—mostly, she admitted to herself, to spite his acid-tongued sister—she had thought, hoped, wished that if she tried very hard this time, things might be different.
They were not. She had tried her best, and still her stubborn heart refused to cooperate. She liked William well enough. She did not, however, love him, and she knew now she never would.
She could not marry him.
Had she not, three weeks ago, overheard Lady Dreyer, William's high-in-the-instep older sister, insisting to Princess Lieven, the most top-lofty of the Almack's patronesses, that no matter how much he dangled after her William would never be so foolish as to make Lady Elizabeth Banning, with her shocking reputation and scandal-plagued bloodline, an offer, she would never have accepted him in the first place.
But she had overheard, and the die was cast. The remark had both hurt and infuriated her, and when William, with, admittedly, some considerable encouragement on her part, did indeed come up to scratch, she had accepted him on the spot. Suspecting even then that she would live to regret it, she had added the proviso that they tell no one outside their immediate families until her brother-in-law the Duke, who stood in place of her guardian since both her parents were dead, should come up from the country, from whence he had arrived, most unexpectedly, earlier that evening. Still, whispers of an engagement had run like wildfire around the ton, so much so that Beth had actually found herself in the absurd position of seriously considering marrying the man simply to keep the gossips from saying she was playing fast and loose with yet another gentleman's affections.
Fortunately, she was not yet as foolish as that.
“I spoke to your brother-in-law not an hour since.” William was breathing hard and his hands had closed into fists at his sides. “I told him then that I hoped to be able to announce the engagement at midnight tonight, and he made no objection.”
“Which is why I am telling you now,” Beth said. Her older sister Claire, Duchess of Richmond, had told her of William's conversation with her husband, which was why Beth was giving William his cong - in the middle of Claire's ball. The timing was less than ideal, Beth knew, and she blamed herself for delaying until circumstances forced her hand. William was angry, as he had every right to be. She, on the other hand, would remain cool and composed. With that laudable objective in mind, her tone was eminently reasonable, and she laid a placating hand on his forearm as she spoke. The sleeve of his bottle green satin coat, which he wore with a pale yellow waistcoat and white inexpressibles, felt smooth beneath her fingers, but the tension of the limb beneath spoke to how very far from being placated he actually was. “Before the announcement is made. That way, neither of us need suffer the slightest degree of embarrassment.”
“Embarrassment. . . ” William's eyes bulged and his face went from puce to purple. “My God, they are already betting on it in the clubs. At White's, the odds are five to one against me getting you to the altar and ten to one against you actually going through with the ceremony and becoming my wife.”
“How dreadful.” Beth was genuinely shocked. Her lips pursed, and she shook her head in disbelief as her hand dropped away from his arm. “Gentlemen will truly bet on anything.”
William sucked in air. “Is that all you can say?”
“I'm sorry,” she offered again. Muffled by distance, the lilting strains of the first notes of the quadrille reached her ears. They had exited in the midst of a country dance, which had clearly run its course. She had pounced on William as soon as she had spotted him in the ballroom, but as he was more than passing fond of his own voice, it had taken her some time to detach him from the group he'd been edifying with a detailed account of his role in some long-past hunt. Now, with the quadrille striking up, Mr. Hayden, to whom she rather thought she'd promised the next dance, would be searching for her. Time to end this. “But when you have had time to reflect a little, I'm sure you will agree with me that it's for the best. Truly, we should not suit.”
“But . . . ”
Prolonging this served no purpose. She started to turn away, adding with finality, “Pray excuse me. I must return to the ballroom now.”
“Wait.” He caught her arm above the elbow, his fingers gripping just a little too hard for comfort. She turned back to him with raised brows. “It's too late to draw back. I've sent the announcement to the papers. It is to run in tomorrow's edition.”
“Oh, no.” Beth thought of the torrent of gossip that would sweep over her—over her family, over William and his family—in the wake of her publicly crying off from yet another engagement, and she winced inwardly. There was already so much notoriety attached to the Banning family name that this would be in the nature of heaping coals upon an already smoldering fire. The resulting blaze would be intense. Her eyes went to the clock on the mantel. It was a few minutes past eleven p.m. Almost certainly, the presses would already be printing. There was little chance of withdrawing the announcement now. “You should not have done so.”
“You mean, I should have remembered that you have jilted two previous fianc - s and expected you would do the same to me?”
She didn't like the tone of that, but she had to admit that, from William's point of view, she probably deserved it.
In any case, there was no undoing what was done. She gave him a small, wry smile. “Well, at least you may take comfort in the fact that no one will attach the least blame to you.”
“You're right about that.” From his expression, it was apparent the fact did not please him. “But the scandal will besmirch us all.”
Catching her other arm, William jerked her toward him. Taken by surprise, Beth found herself coming up tight against his chest. The top of her head reached the bridge of his nose, which meant that they were almost eye to eye for a pregnant moment as their gazes collided. Supremely conscious that she was in the wrong—and also that a good portion of the ton was present at her sister's party and would thus be able to hear any loud altercation that occurred inside the library—she confined her reaction to firming her lips and narrowing her eyes at him warningly.
“William—” she began.
He rushed on, cutting her off, his fingers tightening around her arms until they dug painfully into her soft flesh, clearly undeterred by the fact that she was now rigid against him and her eyes were starting to shoot off sparks.
“But of course, this is nothing new to you, is it? I am but one in a long line, after all! You left Amperman practically on the steps of the church, and you threw Kirkby over less than a week before the wedding. I should have been warned. Indeed, I was warned! Everyone I hold dear advised me against making you an offer. She's shameless, a hardened flirt, they said. There's bad blood in that family. Look at the father, wed four times, a drunkard and a dreadful loose screw. Look at the sisters, both the subjects of sordid scandals. Shocking reputations, the pair of them, and the third girl's no better, I was told more times than I can count. But more fool I, I chose to disregard those who I now perceive to have had my best interests at heart, even my own mother. And this, this is my reward!”
By the time he finished, he was breathing hard. The ambiversions he had cast on her sisters' characters caused Beth's slim black brows to snap together in an ominous line over her delicate nose. Her delft blue eyes took on a decidedly militant sparkle, and a flush—that curse of all redheads—heated her porcelain skin. Still, mindful of the gathered company that would dearly love to add yet another page to her family's already overflowing book of sins, she kept her composure, albeit with an effort.
“If this is how you see fit to behave, I am very glad I decided we should not suit.” Her tone was icy, and she disdained to struggle, although she had little doubt that she would have bruises on the morrow from where his fingers were digging into her arms. “Unhand me, if you please. I repeat, our engagement is at an end, and I wish to return to the company.”
“Unhand you?” William's mouth took on an ugly twist, and a hard gleam appeared in his eyes. He shook his head at her. “Oh, no. You'll not play fast and loose with me. I've not the smallest desire to become the laughingstock of White's, or the subject of my friends' pity, or the world's jests. You gave your word, and now you will marry me.”
“Now there you're out: I won't.” There was a decided snap to her voice as her patience frayed. Beth attempted to pull her arms free without success, her determination to be cool and collected almost lost in a hot rush of temper, which she just managed to keep from getting the better of her by remembering the proximity of a potential audience. “Let me go at once.”
“No.” With a quick move that caught her by surprise, William snagged a hand in the neckline of her gown and yanked. The delicate silk tore like paper. Gasping, looking down at herself in disbelief, Beth realized that the top of her dress had been all but ripped away. Only the fluttering gold ribbons tied beneath her breasts kept the ruined garment from dropping to her feet. Except for the flimsy barrier of her near-transparent chemise, she was now naked almost to the waist. The firm white curves of her generous bosom swelled indecently above the filmy muslin undergarment that revealed almost as much as it concealed.
“What the blazes do you think you're doing?” Her eyes flew to his even as her hand clapped over her d - colletage in an attempt to shield as much of her flesh as possible from his view. For the moment at least, the shock of it was enough to practically immobilize her. “You must be mad.”
“Aren't you going to scream? Half the ton will no doubt come barreling to your rescue if you do.” He gave her a sneering smile. As Beth attempted to jerk her arm free, his fingers tightened until they were digging into her in a grip that no amount of tugging could break. If she hadn't been so angry—and so increasingly alarmed—she would have winced at the pain of it. “I, of course, will explain that I was simply overcome with lust for my affianced wife, and you—you will have a choice of marrying me at once, or being utterly, completely ruined.”
Beth instantly envisioned the scenario he described and was appalled. Smirking, he grabbed the shoulder of her chemise and yanked. The flimsy cloth ripped with a sharp tearing sound. Only her hand pressed to her breasts kept the garment from disintegrating completely, and prevented her from being utterly exposed.
“You pig. Let me go!” Maddened, Beth kicked him, but from his reaction, or, rather, the lack of it, it was clear the contact hurt her toes in their soft slippers more than it did his rock-solid shin. Hampered by her inability to use either hand, she nevertheless fought furiously to tear herself free. “I'll never marry you. Never, do you hear? No matter what.”
Despite her rising fury, Beth was careful to keep her voice down lest someone in the milling company that filled the house to overflowing should overhear. To her horror, she realized that he was right in his estimation: if anyone found them like this, the scandal would be insupportable. If they didn't wed immediately, the doors of polite society would be closed to her forever. She would be well and truly ruined. The prospect was terrifying. Though she might flirt with being outrageous, and enjoy fulfilling the expectations of those who called her scandalous just to prove that their gossip meant nothing to her, she had no stomach for finding herself a true pariah. And the resulting firestorm of scandal would scorch her family, too.
“Oh, I think you will.” William smiled that sneering smile at her again even as her eyes shot pure poison at him. Then, grabbing her other arm in such a way that she lost her protective grip on her tattered chemise, which immediately fell so that her breasts were now completely bared, he took a good, long look—and shoved her roughly away from him.
“Oh!” Taken by surprise, Beth staggered backward. The small, sharp cry escaped her lips before she could clamp them together, but she managed to swallow the rest of it even as the edge of the Egyptian-style settee caught the back of her knees. She lost her balance, sitting down hard upon the slippery silk seat.
“You'll pay for this, you . . . ” There were no words bad enough to do her feelings justice. She'd started to bounce back up, quivering with fury, both fists at the ready, and never mind that she was now in truth indecent, when he threw himself on top of her, forcing her down into the settee. He lay on top of her, his weight pinning her down, his hands imprisoning her wrists, licking and kissing the delicate cord at the side of her neck.
Beth shuddered with revulsion. She heaved beneath him, jerking her head to one side, craning her neck to escape his disgusting onslaught, all to no avail.
“Get off me! You disgust me, you cretin.” The fact that she hissed rather than screamed the words at him in no way detracted from their venom. “How dare you attack me like this? How dare you?”
“You'll wed me, one way or another.”
“Pray disabuse yourself of that notion! I never will!”
His lips, open and wet, found her averted mouth then, and to her disgust he thrust his thick, wet tongue inside, so far that it felt like it was going all the way down her throat. Gagging, cringing with distaste, suppressing a scream only with the greatest of effort, Beth tore her mouth free, bucking and writhing like a mad thing in a frenzied effort to extricate herself. Her efforts paid off: dislodged, he fell heavily to the floor. Unfortunately, he took her with him, then flipped her onto her back and flung himself atop her again even as she tried to scramble away. The impact knocked the air from her lungs. He trapped her with his weight, grabbing her fists and forcing them above her head, where he pinned them to the thick Turkish carpet. The hard round buttons on his coat and waistcoat dug into her tender breasts as he ground his lower body suggestively against hers.
Dear God, I hate this, she thought, revolted. And she knew that this, this imposition of his flesh on hers, was at least part of the reason why she could not stomach the idea of marriage. To give a man the right to use her so at will . . .
She could not do it.
“Get off me! Get off, do you hear?”
Panting, struggling for all she was worth, she merely succeeded in shifting them both sideways. Breathing hard, still firmly atop her, he forced his knee between hers. He was, Beth was sickened to realize, glancing down between them to ogle her breasts.
“You'll sing quite another tune when you are my wife.” His voice was thick. He licked his lips. His eyes still fixed to her bosom, he lowered his head . . .
He meant to put his mouth on her breasts.
Galvanized by revulsion, heart thumping wildly, fighting to get away with every ounce of strength she possessed, Beth managed to jerk an arm free at last. His attention thankfully diverted, he grabbed for it, but she was too fast: fist clenched, she punched him in the temple so hard her knuckles stung.
“Ahh.” He reared up with a curse, face contorting viciously, and grabbed for her hands—both were free now—as she pounded him about the head and shoulders.
“Think you there will be no reckoning for this, you want-wit? I'll see you dead over it.”
“Wed, rather,” he panted.
Shaking with fury and fear, heaving in a futile attempt to throw him off, she went for his eyes with her nails. There was now no doubt in her mind that, if she didn't stop him by screaming for assistance or some other means, he meant rape.
Even as her nails gouged his skin he slapped her, the blow heavy and shocking. The force of it caused her head to snap to one side and briefly disordered her senses.
“Strumpet. Jezebel. Jade. I'll school you to mind your manners with me. When you are my wife . . . ”
Stunned, Beth lost the sense of his words as she found herself staring blindly into the fire. It twinkled merrily at her, oblivious to her distress, and she realized that she was now lying within arm's reach of the fireplace. Then he caught her chin, wrenched her face around, and ground his mouth into hers again.
At the renewed assault of that sluglike tongue, Beth went cold with horror. She felt a wave of nausea.
The fireplace tools.
The image of them as she had just seen them standing beside the hearth snapped into sudden sharp focus in her mind.
They were close. Within reach.
No sooner did she realize that than she reached out for them, her groping fingers finding and identifying the ornate silver stand, the small broom, the poker. His mouth left hers—I'm going to be sick, she thought—only to find her throat again; he caught her tangled skirt and dragged it up, over her knees, despite her struggles.
Her fingers closed desperately around the poker's smooth iron shaft. An instant later the heavy metal bar arced through the air as she slammed it down smartly against the back of his head.
To her alarm, William merely stiffened, shaking his head a little, his eyes widening as his head came up just enough so that he could stare down at her in disbelief. Terrified that she had not done the thing properly, she hit him again with all her might. The resultant thunk made her think of a melon splitting.
He made a little sound like a kitten mewling.
Heart pounding like a runaway horse, she watched with a kind of dreadful fascination as his eyes rolled back in his head and his mouth went horribly slack. Then he collapsed on top of her without another sound, pure dead weight.
Thank God, was her first thought. Her second was, Oh, no, have I killed him?
Shaking, heart thudding, breath rasping in her throat as she struggled to suck air into her lungs, Beth lay beneath his motionless body for a moment in near shock as visions of her own lifeless body swinging from the gallows at Tyburn flooded her mind. Then she realized that she could feel his chest moving, hear the faint wheeze of his breathing, and felt a quick upsurge of relief.
Not dead, then.
With that reassuring thought, she recovered some of her wits, and realized she had to move at once lest William regain consciousness, or—and she couldn't decide which was worse—someone should come in and discover them. Gritting her teeth, willing her poor trembling body to move, she tried to wriggle out from beneath him without success. Unfortunately, there was no budging him. He was simply too heavy.
I'm trapped. What now?
From the distant ballroom, she heard the last flourishing notes of the quadrille, and panic seized her. At any moment someone could open the library door and find them like this.
The specter of ruin flashed hideously in her mind's eye. But even ruin, she decided in that instant, was better by far than being wed to this man.
But neither was obviously preferable.
Beth never knew from whence she summoned the strength to shove him off, but she found it. Wedging both hands beneath his shoulder, she heaved, then heaved again—and it was enough. William rolled limply onto his back, his outflung hand catching and parting the sumptuous velvet curtains that they had been standing in front of earlier, when she had first told him that the engagement was off.
She had just rolled onto her hands and knees in preparation for jumping to her feet when something caught her eye. Impossibly, a boot was planted there between the curtains. A man's large black riding boot, scarred and creased from wear, and liberally flecked with mud.
For the space of a couple of heartbeats, her gaze stuck there, riveted.
The boot was attached to a leg, Beth saw as her gaze rose along it inexorably. A long, muscular leg encased in snug black trousers. The leg was attached to lean masculine hips . . .
It was then, with a jolt of pure shock, that the truth registered: there was a man standing in the window embrasure. Until that moment he had been concealed behind the curtains. A tall, broad-shouldered, darkly handsome stranger clad all in black save for the merest hint of white that was his shirt, silhouetted against the grayer black of the moonlit night beyond. His lean face was absolutely expressionless. His crow black hair was tied back in a queue. Without the muffling effect of the heavy curtains, cold air rushed in across the small balcony that overlooked the garden. Remembering the earlier draft on her shoulders, Beth felt certain that the tall French window had been open all along.
He had climbed in through the window . . . Why?
Having shot to his face, her eyes now locked with his. They were as black and hard as pieces of jet. Cold, pitiless eyes that stared narrowly back at her, their expression so menacing that her breath caught.
In that frozen instant she realized, too, that he held a pistol in one hand.
Beth's eyes widened. Her heart skipped a beat. Her mouth went dry.
Said pistol was now aimed directly at her.
© 2010 Karen Robards
Excerpted from Shameless by Karen Robards Copyright © 2010 by Karen Robards. Excerpted by permission.
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