Suddenlyby Candace Camp
Simon "Devil" Dure is as cynical about love as spirited Charity Emerson is innocent of it. But she is certain she can meet his wifely expectations, and he is charmed and amused enough to believe her. Their ensuing engagement is as shocking as it is conspiratorial. With her crazy schemes and her warm laughter, Charity tempts Simon—with more than her… See more details below
Simon "Devil" Dure is as cynical about love as spirited Charity Emerson is innocent of it. But she is certain she can meet his wifely expectations, and he is charmed and amused enough to believe her. Their ensuing engagement is as shocking as it is conspiratorial. With her crazy schemes and her warm laughter, Charity tempts Simon—with more than her body.
Her loving heart seduces him to unlock the shackles around his own. There is no warning, however, of the treacherous trap that lies ahead, or of the vicious act of murder that will put their courage—and their love—to the ultimate test.
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- 4.10(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.80(d)
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There was a moment of stunned silence. The Earl of Dure stared at Charity, baffled.
He had been amazed when his butler, Chaney, announced that Charity Emerson was at the door. He knew that Charity was Serena's sister, though he had never met the girl. He had been intrigued, as well, for he could not imagine what bizarre circumstance could have brought her to his doorstep. Even though rumors had been flying for the past two or three weeks that he was on the verge of offering for Serena, he was not yet in any way related to the Emersons, and it was social disaster for a young woman to visit the house of a man who was not kin to her.
When Charity stepped into his study, he had been surprised again, for he had expected Serena's younger sister to be a schoolroom miss, not the obviously grown, youthfully blooming young woman who stood before him. It was, however, quite easy to see why Charity had been left with the younger daughters in the schoolroom, instead of being brought out with her sisters, Serena and Elspeth. Her excellent figure and glowing blond beauty would have cast both of the others into the shade. He had felt an immediate and definite tightening of his loins as he looked at her.
Her question left him speechless. Finally he cleared his throat and said, "I beg your pardon?"
Charity blushed, realizing how baldly her words had come out. "That is, I mean, well, you are in the market for a wife, are you not?"
The Earl's eyebrows rose lazily. Whatever surprise he felt did not show on his cool, composed face. "I doubt that the matter is any of your concern, Miss Emerson, but, yes, I do intend to marry soon. Since my grandfather died, I have a duty to the estate to produce an heir."
"Well, that is why I am here."
"You are saying you intend to, ah, put yourself upon the market?"
Charity's flush deepened to a bright red. She had not said at all what she intended to. Her plan had been to state her case coolly and logically, but somehow, as so often happened to her, the words had just seemed to come tumbling out of her mouth.
"I am not—" She had started to retort hotly, then stopped. "Well, yes in a way—but not as you're implying."
"Indeed." His dark eyes were tinged with amusement. "Pray, may I ask, in what way are you offering yourself?"
There was a dark, subtle undertone in his voice that sent a shiver up Charity's spine. She knew that she should be insulted at his words, that he was implying that she was not a lady, but the timbre of his voice made her feel more weak in the knees than indignant.
She stiffened her spine, reminding herself of what was at stake here, and said, "Everyone says that you are planning to ask my sister to marry you. Even Papa told Mama last night that he thought you would come up to scratch soon."
"Indeed?" The Earl's mouth twitched.
"Yes. When I heard that, I knew I had to do something desperate."
"Did you, now? And what might that be?"
"To ask you to marry me, instead of Serena."
"You're trying to steal a march on your sister?"
Charity looked horrified. "No! It's not like that, my lord. You mustn't think that I would ever do anything to hurt Serena. It's just the opposite. I am rescuing her."
"Rescuing her? From marriage to me?" His brows vaulted upward. "I had not realized that it was so horrible a fate. Indeed, I thought Miss Serena seemed perfectly, ah… resigned to it."
"Oh, she is," Charity assured him gravely. "She knows that it is her duty to marry you, and, you see, Serena is the kind of woman who always does her duty to her family. She will most certainly marry you if someone doesn't do anything to stop it, and then she will be thoroughly miserable the rest of her life!"
There was a moment of silence, then Dure mused, "I was unaware what a poor husband I would be."
Charity blushed, realizing how tactless her statement had been. "I—I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that marriage to you would make a person miserable, ordinarily—for if that were so, I don't think I would have offered to marry you in her place. Truly, I'm afraid I'm not that unselfish a person." Her brows knit a little as she regarded this failing in herself. "No doubt Serena would have done so for me, but she is a vastly superior person."
"I find her quite above the ordinary," Simon admitted, and his dark eyes danced with amusement, changing his hard face in a startling way. "That is why I was intending to offer for her."
"But you are not in love with her, are you?" Charity asked anxiously. "Serena did not think you were. She and Papa both said that you were not interested in love with a wife. That is true, isn't it?"
"It is true that I am looking for a more reasonable arrangement," he admitted. "I tried love once, and I have little intention of falling into that pit again. But I am afraid I still don't understand why—"
"Well, it isn't that Serena's afraid of you. She isn't— or, at least, only a little bit."
"I am vastly relieved."
Charity glanced at him, and, catching the glimmer in his eyes, she relaxed and grinned. "I'm sorry. I'm making a proper mess of it, aren't I? The problem is this—Serena is in love with another man. You can understand, can't you, how she would not want to marry you, when her heart has been given to another?"
Dure frowned thoughtfully. "Your sister never mentioned this to me. She seemed quite agreeable to my advances. If she did not wish to marry me, why didn't she say so?"
"That is not her way. She is a dutiful daughter, and Papa and Mama very much want her to make this marriage. You see, with five daughters, it is very difficult. For even one of them to make a splendid marriage would be so advantageous. Once Serena is married to you, then she can bring out all her younger sisters."
Simon let out a faint groan at the thought of bringing out a succession of girls in his house, and Charity nodded commiseratingly. "You're right. You would not enjoy it at all. Especially Belinda, for she is a spoiled brat. But Serena feels that she has to marry you for the sake of our family, even though it breaks her heart. You see, she is in love with the parson back home, at Siddley-on-the-Marsh. Reverend Anthony Woodson. He's a very good man, but, of course, he has no fortune. Serena doesn't mind. She just wants to marry him and be happy and do good works. She would be a wonderful parson's wife, for she's very good and kind, you know, and she wants to help people. She truly doesn't mind wearing old clothes and not going to balls and such."
Charity's nose wrinkled as she considered this oddity in her sister.
"I had no idea," Dure said gravely. "I assure you, I do not wish to marry your sister if she is in love with another man. It was never my intention to force her into marriage."
"Of course not. I was sure it was that you did not know— After all, how could you? Serena would never tell you herself, and Papa and Mama don't even know that she is in love with Reverend Woodson. They would not approve, you see, since he has no money."
"I give you my word that I will relieve your sister's mind on that score." He hesitated, curiously reluctant to send his visitor away. "Now, Miss Emerson, having accomplished your mission, you must return home. I am afraid it would do considerable damage to your reputation if it ever got out that you were in a gentleman's quarters. Especially mine," he added truthfully.
"I know. Aunt Ermintrude would say I was brassy. She often says so, anyway. And Mama did say that you had something of a reputation. At first she was somewhat concerned, you see, about whether your intentions toward Serena were honorable, but Papa assured her that you never took up with young females of virtue."
Simon let out a bark of laughter. Charity looked somewhat abashed. "I'm sorry. I've done it again, haven't I? Even Serena says that I let my tongue run away with me. I hope I haven't offended you."
"Not at all. In fact, you've added a considerable amount of amusement—not to mention enlightenment—to my morning. But you must go now. I will have Chaney get you a hack. I am afraid my own carriage would arouse too much notice."
"Wait!" Charity jumped to her feet. "You haven't said— I mean, you can't just not marry Serena! Mama will murder me if she finds out I talked you out of offering for Serena and then someone else, like that odious Lady Amanda, gets you instead."
"I can assure you that I have no plans to offer for Lady Amanda Tilford's hand," Simon retorted flatly.
"Of course not. You would not be so foolish, I am sure. But, don't you see, it must be one of us— Oh, I wouldn't have come here if I hadn't thought you would be willing to take me instead! Papa says it's absolutely vital that Serena marry you, so we won't wind up in the poorhouse." She paused, then added judiciously, "I don't believe he meant that quite literally, but it's true that we are in a real case. I've had to turn these gloves, and this bonnet is Serena's old one that I retrimmed. And Papa told us that no one else could have new dresses this year so that he could pay for Serena's and Elspeth's coming out. Mama and Papa married for love, you see, and neither of them had a feather to fly with. Fortunately Aunt Grimmedge left Mama a competence, or I don't know what we would have done these past years. But Mama would never consider any of us marrying someone in trade, even if we were starving.
She's proud, you see, what with her cousin being a duke and all. But your family is impeccable enough even for her—except for that scandal back in the time of King Charles II, but Mama excuses that because, after all, she says, everyone was quite scandalous then."
"I'm sure that the Dowager Countess will be elated to hear that your mother finds the earldom of Dure acceptable."
"Oh, dear. Have I offended you?"
"No. However, I don't think this marriage swap is quite as easy a matter as trading one horse for another."
"But it is!" Charity assured him earnestly. "I mean, what you want is an heir, is it not? And I am quite as capable of producing one as Serena. I am fully grown and perfectly healthy." She held her hands a little out to the sides, inviting him to look at her.
"Yes," he agreed, his dark eyes lighting for an instant. "You are perfectly healthy."
"There! I am as likely as anyone to bear healthy heirs. And my bloodlines are exactly the same as Serena's. So I'm just as respectable."
"Not if you often frequent bachelors' quarters this way," he pointed out.
"I am not in the habit of it," Charity rejoined indignantly, her blue eyes flashing. "I came here only in desperation, I told you that. I had to save my sister."
"And you are willing to, uh… be the sacrificial lamb?"
Her brief moment of indignation passed, and Charity had to giggle at his description. "Well, I was the only one. Elspeth would not have done it. She's scared witless of you. You wouldn't want her, anyway. She whines all the time, and is a perfect bore. Belinda and Horatia are both too young. So that leaves me. Besides, I would not call it a sacrifice, exactly. You are, after all, an earl, and a wealthy man, and—" she tilted her head judiciously and studied him "—a rather attractive one, at that, if you like the dark, brooding sort."
"And do you like that sort?"
The low tone of his voice set up an odd, unsettling stirring in Charity's abdomen. "I do not dislike it," she replied demurely, casting her eyes down, as a modest maiden should, but with such an air of mischief that Simon found it hard not to chuckle.
"You do not fear me?"
"No. Actually, I'm not afraid of much of anything. Mama has frequently said that I am sadly lacking in sensitivity."
Simon did laugh aloud this time. "You are a minx, I fear, and a man would doubtless do well to stay away from you."
Charity shrugged. "That is what my father has told me." She pursed her lips in a way that was unconsciously alluring, and Simon felt his loins tighten again in response.
"This is absurd," he said roughly. "You haven't any idea what you are doing."
"No, I nearly always know exactly what I'm about. That is why I do it." She gazed at him with her clear, candid blue eyes. "And I have to tell you that I usually end up getting what I set out to."
Dure turned and walked away, shaking his head, though there was indecision in the lines of his body.
"I understand that you have doubts, since you do not know me," Charity went on cheerfully. "But the truth is, I would be a far better wife for you than Serena. You see, you spend a good deal of your time in London, but Serena would be miserable here all the time. Worse than that, for you, she would probably try to reform your ways."
"That would have been awkward," Simon murmured, fighting a smile as he looked out the window.
"On the other hand, I enjoy the city," Charity continued. "I would love to go to parties and dinners and the opera and all those things. Truthfully," she admitted, "I'm nearly eaten up with envy watching Elspeth and Serena get to do such things, when they don't even really enjoy them."
She paused and frowned. "Of course, I would have to bring out Belinda and Horatia and try to find Elspeth a husband, as well. It would be my duty. But—" she brightened "—it will be much easier with me doing it. I will be better able to make them fashionable, and I will rid us of them much sooner."
Simon made a strangled noise, and she peered across the room at him. "What's wrong? Is something the matter?"
"No." He turned back, his lips pressed together. He stood regarding her for a moment, then shook his head. "My dear girl, you tempt me, but I'm afraid it would not suit."
Charity's face fell ludicrously, and she looked so woebegone that for a moment Simon thought she was about to cry.
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