- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Devonshire, England January 1818
"I will not marry him!"
Lady Aurora Huntley nearly toppled the study chair, leaping to her feet as if she'd been singed. With a look of utter incredulity, she stared across the desk at her brother, her chest tight with unspeakable fury. "My God, Slayde, have you lost your mind?"
"No." The Earl of Pembourne unfolded from his chair, his silver-gray eyes narrowed in warning. "I assure you, Aurora, I am quite sane. You, on the other hand, are bordering on irrational. Now, sit down."
"Irrational?" Aurora ignored the command, tilting back her head to gaze up at her tall, formidable brother. "You've just announced to me, as casually as one would announce the time of day, that in a matter of weeks you'll be marrying me off to an affable but uninspiring man who is no more than a chance acquaintance and for whom I feel nothing, and you find my anger irrational?"
"The Viscount Guillford is a fine man," Slayde refuted, hands clasped behind his back as if prepared to do battle. "He's honest and principled—I've done business with him for years and know that firsthand. He's also financially secure, well respected, even tempered, and generous, not to mention nice-looking and charming, as is evidenced by the number of women reputedly vying for his affections—and his name."
"I'm not most women."
A muscle flexed in Slayde's jaw. "I'm only too well aware of that. Nonetheless, the viscount is everything I just described and more. He's also—for some very fortunate and equally baffling reason—thoroughly smitten with you, even after a mere four or five meetings. In fact, according to him, he fell under your spell on his first visit to Pembourne. That was the time I was unavoidably detained for our business meeting and, to quote Guillford, you entertained him with your delightful company until I arrived."
"Entertained him? We chatted about White's and the finer points of whist. He made a gracious attempt to teach me to play. You were a quarter hour late. The moment you walked into the sitting room, I excused myself and left. That was the extent of the 'entertainment' I provided."
"Well, you must have made quite an impression. The viscount found you refreshing and lovely. Further, he's one of a select and rapidly diminishing few who remain unperturbed by the Huntley curse and by the scandal surrounding our age-old feud with the Bencrofts. When you consider the events of the past fortnight, that last factor could be the most significant of all Guillford's attributes. So, contrary to your protests, you are indeed going to marry him."
"But, Slayde ..."
"No." Adamantly, Slayde sliced the air with his palm, silencing Aurora's oncoming plea. "My decision is final. The arrangements are under way. The subject is closed."
Aurora sucked in her breath, taken aback by the unyielding fervor of Slayde's decree. It had been months—last spring to be exact—since she'd seen that rigid, uncompromising expression on his face, felt that impenetrable wall of reserve loom up between them.
She'd thought the old Slayde gone forever—together with his obsessive hatred for the Bencrofts. That Slayde had vanished last May when he'd met and subsequently married Courtney Johnston who, with her quiet spirit and unwavering love, had permeated Slayde's heart, granting him peace with the past and hope for the future.
Until now, when all the wonder Courtney had effected was in danger of being shattered—and by the very man Slayde so loathed.
Lawrence Bencroft, the Duke of Morland.
Fury swelled inside Aurora as she contemplated the hell Morland had resurrected with his bloody investigation, his false accusations. Damn him for stirring up doubts that had, at long last, begun to subside. Damn him for casting aspersion on the Huntleys, then dying before he could be disproved.
Most of all, damn that bloody black diamond. Damn it and its heinous curse. For three generations it had haunted her family. Would they never escape its lethal grasp?
With a hard swallow, Aurora struggled to compose herself. "Slayde," she tried, reminding herself yet again that her brother's irrationality was founded in fear, not domination or cruelty. "I realize that the ton's focus has returned to the diamond with a vengeance since Morland's accusations and now his death. But ..."
"The ton?" A predatory look flashed in Slayde's eyes. "Cease this nonsensical attempt to placate me, Aurora. You know bloody well I don't give a damn about the fashionable world or their gossip. What I do give a damn about are the three attempted burglaries, half-dozen extortion letters, and equally as many threats that have besieged Pembourne over the past ten days. Evidently Morland's sudden demise, on the heels of commencing an investigation that—according to his very public announcement—would prove I was harboring the black diamond, has once again convinced numerous privateers and scoundrels, prompting them to act. Clearly they intend to ransack my home, threaten and browbeat me into producing the stone—a stone I've never seen and haven't the slightest clue where to find."
"But how can anyone invade Pembourne? You have guards posted everywhere."
Slayde scowled. "That offers reassurances, not guarantees. Aurora, I'm your guardian. I'm also your brother. That means I'm not only responsible for your safety, I'm committed to ensuring it. I won't see you harmed or vulnerable to attack."
"I'll take my chances."
"I won't." Slayde's tone was as uncompromising as his words. "I intend to see you safely wed, severed from the Huntley name for good."
Wincing, Aurora tried another tactic. "How does Courtney feel about your insistence that I marry the viscount?"
One dark brow rose. "I think you know the answer to that."
"She fought your decision."
"Like a tigress."
Despite her careening emotions, Aurora smiled. "Thank God."
"Don't bother. 'Tis a waste of time. You won't win this battle—not even with Courtney's help."
A knowing look. "Why not? She's not only my closest friend, she's your wife—and your greatest weakness. I have yet to see you refuse her anything."
"There's a first time for everything." Slayde inhaled sharply. "In any case, Courtney is not the issue here. You are."
"I beg to differ with you. Courtney is the issue here. As is your unborn child. How are you going to protect them from the curse?"
Pain flashed in Slayde's eyes. "With my life. I have no other means. I can't protect them, as I can you, by severing their ties to me. 'Tis too late for that. Courtney and I are bound in the most fundamental way possible—my babe is growing inside her. I cannot offer her freedom, a new life, even if I chose to. But with you—I can." Slowly he walked around his desk to face his sister. "There's no point in arguing, Aurora. I've already accepted Guillford's offer. You'll be married in a month." He paused, studying Aurora's clenched fists from beneath hooded lids. "I realize you're furious at me right now. I hope someday you'll understand. But whether or not you do, you're marrying Guillford. So I suggest you accustom yourself to the idea." Slayde's expression softened. "He adores you. He told me himself that he wants to give you the world. As for you, I know you enjoy his company. I've seen you smile, even laugh, in his presence."
"I behave similarly in the presence of Courtney's pup, Tyrant."
Another scowl. "You'll learn to love him."
Vehemently, Aurora shook her head. "No, Slayde, I won't."
She turned and marched out of the study.
"I spent all last night pleading your case." Courtney Huntley, the very lovely, very pregnant Countess of Pembourne, sighed, shadows of fatigue etched beneath her sea green eyes. "He's adamant that this union take place."
"The whole idea is ludicrous." Aurora paced the length of her friend's bedchamber, her red-gold hair whipping about her shoulders. "Slayde of all people should realize that marriage must be founded on love, not reason. After all, that's why you two wed. My brother is so in love with you he can scarcely see straight. How can he want less for me?"
"He doesn't want less for you," Courtney defended at once. "I promise you, Aurora, if there were someone special in your life, someone you cared for, Slayde would refuse Lord Guillford's offer in a heartbeat."
"But since there isn't, I'm being forced to wed the most acceptable substitute?"
Courtney sighed. "I can't argue that Slayde's plan is a dreadful mistake. All I can do is explain that his worry for your welfare is eclipsing his reason. I've never seen him so distraught, not even when we first met. Since Morland died and speculation over the black diamond's whereabouts has escalated into a host of threats, it's as if he's been reliving years past. He's no more rational about me than he is about you. I'm not even permitted to stroll the gardens alone. Either he or one of the guards is perpetually glued to my side."
"Well, perhaps you're willing to accept it. I'm not."
A flicker of humor. "Willing? No. Resigned is a better choice of words." Tenderly, Courtney smoothed her palm over her swollen abdomen. "I'm a bit more unwieldy than I was a few months past—or hadn't you noticed? I suspect I wouldn't prove much of an adversary to the guards if I tried to outrun them."
Aurora didn't return her smile. "I can't marry Lord Guillford, Courtney," she whispered, coming to a halt. "I just can't."
Their gazes met.
"I'll talk to Slayde again," Courtney vowed. "Tonight. I'll think of something—Lord knows what, but I'll fight this betrothal with every emotional weapon I possess."
With a worried nod, Aurora looked away, contemplating her options.
Customarily Courtney's assurances would have been more than enough. But not this time.
Slayde had been too vehement, too single-minded, and there was too much at stake.
She'd have to ensure his cooperation on her own.
The manor was dark when Aurora slipped out the back door and through the trees. She'd mentally mapped out her route five times since the last of Pembourne's lamps had been doused, grateful she had a new escape route the guards had yet to discern.
That was because she'd only just discovered it.
She'd come upon the tiny path last week, by pure chance, while romping about with Tyrant. He'd raced off, thereby leading her to the small clearing. Curiously, she'd explored it, discovering with some surprise that the path wound its way to the southern tip of the estate. She'd stored that knowledge away by sheer force of habit, never expecting to use either the information or the route. Her perpetual attempts to escape the prison Pembourne represented had come to an end last spring, along with Courtney's arrival.
But today's decree called for drastic measures. And come hell or high water, she intended to take them.
Inching through the fine layer of snow that clung to the grass, Aurora made her way to the narrow section of trees behind the conservatory, then slipped through them, careful not to disturb the branches or make a sound. Although given the current circumstances she was sure none of the guards was concentrating on her whereabouts. First, because they were keeping vigil, looking out for intruders. And second, she thought with a grin, because her restlessness had so thoroughly vanished they'd become lax about keeping an eye on her. All the better.
Clearing the branches, Aurora's grin widened. The rear gates of Pembourne loomed just ahead. Beyond that, she knew, lay the dirt road which led to the village. Thus, the first part of her plan was complete.
She gathered up her skirts and sprinted forward.
Dawlish Tavern, as the pub's chipped sign identified it, was dark and smoky. Aurora's eyes watered the instant she entered, and she paused in the doorway, impatiently rubbing them as she tried to see.
Perfect, she thought a moment later. The occupants were definitely what her past governesses would have referred to as riffraff, clusters of ill-kempt men gathered about wooden tables laughing loudly as they tossed off tankards of ale and flung playing cards to the table.
The ideal spot to be ruined.
She didn't have much time. Already it was a quarter hour since she'd struck her deal with a local street urchin, having sent him on his way three pounds richer. First, as expected, he'd snatched up the one-pound note she'd offered in exchange for directions to the village's sole tavern. Then—also as anticipated—he'd pocketed the two additional pound notes, swiftly agreeing to deliver Aurora's missive to the Altec estate.
Aurora wasn't stupid. She was well aware the boy could simply bolt with her money, discarding her message before it had ever reached its destination and rendered its impact. She'd eliminated that possibility with her tantalizing promise of a five-pound note for the lad—if he returned to Dawlish Tavern with a written reply.
A chuckle rose in Aurora's throat, its sound drowned out by the tavern's raucous laughter. She could envision Lady Altec's face when the old biddy read the scandalous message from "a friend" revealing that Lady Aurora Huntley was consorting with sailors at a common pub. The elderly matron—Devonshire's biggest gossip—would probably jump into her phaeton and race down there posthaste, still clad in her nightrail, just to be an exclusive witness to the juicy scene.
Mentally, Aurora gauged her time. It would take the lad a solid half hour to travel to the dowager's estate, a few minutes to await a reply to the supposedly anonymous bearer of the tidings, then another half hour to return. That gave Aurora a little over an hour to find the right man to ruin her.
Abruptly she became aware that all activity in the room had stopped, and a dozen and a half pairs of eyes were fixed on her. She glanced down at herself and frowned. Despite her dust-covered gown and worn slippers, she still looked altogether too much like a lady. Well, her actions would soon disprove that notion.
"Wonderful—a full house," she pronounced, her tone shockingly familiar. "May I join you?" She gathered up her skirts and marched boldly over to a table.
The men stared from her to each other and back to her again.
"Lady, ye sure yer in the right place?" a stout, bald fellow inquired over the rim of his mug.
"That depends. If there's good ale and friendly company to be found here, then, yes, I'm in the right place."
More stares. Another gaping silence.
This wouldn't do at all, Aurora determined. How could she be ruined if no one would so much as speak to her?
"Would someone care to buy me a drink?" she asked, looking from one bristled face to another. "Never mind," she amended, realizing these men were undoubtedly poor, unable to squander funds on every woman who walked through the door. "I can pay my own way." So saying, she walked up to the counter, extracting a handful of shillings from her pocket and laying them on the counter. "Will this buy me a glass of ale?"
"A glass?" The tavern keeper cocked an amused brow. "Sweetheart, that'll keep your mug full till next week."
"I hope it doesn't take that long," Aurora muttered under her breath.
"Nothing. May I have my drink now?"
"Sure." He filled a tankard and shoved it across the counter. "Let me or one of the girls know when you're ready for more. You've paid for dozens of rounds."
"Girls?" That was a problem Aurora hadn't anticipated. She turned, scanning the room again, this time noticing two or three barmaids making their way among the tables, trays in hand, broad smiles on their faces. Scowling, she noted the way the men were laughing and joking with them in a familiar manner they'd definitely not afforded her. A problem indeed. Still, there were only a few women as compared with a roomful of men. Surely one of those men wouldn't mind feigning a night of passion rather than pursuing a real one—especially if it meant earning money rather than parting with it?
That gave her an idea.
"Did you say I've paid for dozens of rounds?" she asked the tavern keeper.
"Um-hum. At least."
"Good. Then distribute them among the men."
Another startled look. "All right. Should I say who they're from?"
"Of course. Say they're a gift from ..." A pause. "... The newcomer amongst them."
"Does this newcomer have a name?"
Not one she can provide, Aurora alerted herself silently. At least not yet. Once these sailors learn I'm a Huntley, they'll run for their lives. And if that should happen before I convince one of them to stage my ruin, all my plans will have been for naught.
Excerpted from The Black Diamond by Andrea Kane. Copyright © 1997 Andrea Kane. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted July 2, 2013
Posted June 30, 2013