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"Dearly beloved..." The bishop's voice filled the nave.
Richard Hughes finally relaxed. There was nothing more he could do. The bride and groom glowed with an unmistakable happiness, and the witnesses validated the match.
He stood to one side of the altar, where he could see both the wedding party and the guests. Every gossip in town was in attendance, so the scandal should finally dissipate, leaving only envy that his sister had snared one of society's prizes.
The term annoyed him, though he didn't let it show. Emily was lucky. Because she was female, attaching a wealthy suitor increased her credit. Even if she'd deliberately sought such a prize, no one would condemn her--not that Jacob's fortune mattered; the pair were wildly in love.
But he was not so lucky. His modest means meant many considered him a fortune hunter. Gossips watched his every move, waiting for him to pounce on an heiress. He need only dance with a girl who had a good dowry to ignite whispers. Fathers looked at him askance. That his closest friends were wealthy enough to rival Midas increased people's suspicions.
He forced himself to calm down lest the guests mistake the cause.
Damn the gossips and their constant buzzing. He might have to watch his purse, but he was not in debt. Never would he stoop to wedding money. When he took a wife, she would be sweet, frugal, and have no more than a modest dowry.
He nearly cursed as he recalled the most recent rumors. All he'd done was speak to Miss Downes at a rout--a conversation she had initiated with a question about Emily. They hadn't exchanged a dozen words, yet half of London expected him to seduce her so he could claim herten-thousand-pound dowry. Lord Downes was furious.
Herriard had to have started the tale. If the scoundrel had discovered Richard's investigation, he might think that discrediting him would prevent people from listening to his accusations. No one else would blow the incident so badly out of proportion. Herriard was a cheat, a liar, a vicious--
"Do you take this man..." The words recalled his attention to the service.
He unclenched his fists, hoping no one had noticed. His sister's wedding was no place to think about Herriard. Renewed speculation about why Emily had switched grooms only five days ago would undo all his efforts.
He searched the crowd for Lady Beatrice, London's most powerful gossip. With luck, she was watching Emily, not him. Only her support would rid this union of scandal.
Georgiana Whittaker scrambled to her feet, suppressing a shudder when she noted the gutter's filth. She had no time to fret about horse droppings.
Ignoring the pain slicing her left ankle, she hobbled up George Street. Derrick had been gaining on her even before her fall. Now it would be worse. She had to reach Hanover Square before he spotted her. It was her only chance. The square had a dozen exits. Derrick would never guess which one she chose.
But Hanover Square was two blocks away, and every step was agony. Her pace slowed, then slowed again. Even terror couldn't prod her ankle faster. She was doomed.
A sob escaped as reality crashed over her.
Horses and carriages crowded George Street and jammed Hanover Square. Pedestrians thronged the walkways. Vendors accosted every passerby. With so many eyes peering about, someone would remember her. Many someones. They would tell Derrick.
Desperate, she ducked behind the broad columns of St. George's Church, rushed up the steps, and stumbled inside. Maybe the rector would offer her refuge. Maybe--
As the door closed, a woman's voice replaced the cacophony from the street. "...for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health..."
A wedding. She nearly groaned. She should have known that the crowded street meant the church was full.
Curses nearly tumbled from her lips. A hundred people had gathered here. A hundred aristocrats, judging from their finery.
So far no one had noticed her. All eyes were fixed on five people standing before the altar. Four faced the bishop, who was prompting the bride. But the fifth was half turned toward the crowd.
His presence so near the altar was odd enough, but he seemed too aloof to be part of the proceedings. The bride and groom glowed with happiness, even when seen from behind. The redheaded witnesses radiated joy. But the lone blond was tense, almost poised for battle, with his gloved hands clenched and his weight balanced on his toes. It was an odd posture for a wedding. Who did he think would attack?
She shook away the thought, her own problems more urgent than a puzzle of no import. The rector stood behind the bishop, so she could not approach him. Nor could she afford to be seen. Yet leaving was impossible. Derrick would have reached George Stre--
Angry voices outside sent her heart into her throat. He was closer than she'd thought.
Trapped but not yet ready to surrender, she limped quickly along the wall and ducked into a chapel.
He doesn't know I fell, she prayed as she crouched behind the chapel's altar. Let him believe I at least reached Maddox Street. Send him around the church, not into it. Please!
But she knew her luck had run out.
Richard studied Lady Beatrice. Did she recognize the love that bound Emily and Jacob, or was she too devoted to rules to excuse so juicy a scandal? He couldn't tell, for the gossip's face showed nothing. Unlike him, she was in complete control.
In the days since Emily had jilted Charles, Richard had done what he could to minimize the scandal. Charles stood beside Jacob at the altar. Charles's sister stood beside Emily. Charles's cousin, the bishop, presided. Charles's mother was overseeing the wedding breakfast. But one never knew what Lady Beatrice would do. And without her support...
A disheveled maid slipped into the church and paused in dismay--as well she might. She was caked with mud and intruding on her betters. Yet his gaze was caught by an enchanting face whose big eyes, tilted nose, and blonde curls belonged to an angel. The contrast with her tattered cloak was striking.
Her eyes suddenly widened. Glancing wildly around, she ducked into the chapel.
At least she wouldn't interrupt. Relaxing, he concentrated on the service. Or tried to. Her face teased his mind, igniting a familiar heat that distracted him from Emily's vows. He wondered where the girl worked. Maids often enjoyed a lighthearted romp in bed. Would she...
The door banged open, fracturing his fantasy.
Everyone turned to stare as two men stormed inside--Herriard and his maggoty friend Stagleigh, their faces black with fury. Both were undoubtedly drunk.
Richard nearly snarled.
As Jacob raised his voice for the ring ceremony, reclaiming the crowd's attention, Richard hurried toward the door. It would be just like Herriard to stage an embarrassing scene.
"Is there a problem?" he murmured, blocking access to the nave.
"Nothing I can't handle." Herriard glared.
"Hawthorne's wedding is no concern of yours."
"But the wench who stole my purse is. She ducked in here."
Richard raised his brows. "When?"
"Just now. Two minutes ago. Maybe three."
"I've had the door in sight since the service started," he lied. "Only Hawthorne's guests came in." The girl must be fleeing Herriard. No wonder she was terrified. He dismissed the theft charge, for Herriard was a liar. And even if it were true, Richard could not in good conscience help Herriard catch her. Whether making love or war, the man had a reputation for brutality that turned Richard's stomach. And Stagleigh was worse.
Herriard clenched his fists. "You must have seen her--blonde hair, brown cloak, height about here." He extended his hand level with his shoulder. "A coachman saw her enter."
"The only brown cloak was his." He nodded toward Leonard Waters, who was standing at the back of the crowd. "He arrived about five minutes ago--late, as usual."
Herriard glared at the diminutive dandy. Golden hair glistened above brown velvet.
"You are certain?" demanded Stagleigh.
"Absolutely. The wench probably slipped around the corner." He looked pointedly at the door.
"She didn't have time to reach the corner," insisted Herriard. "She's here somewhere, and I'm going to find her."
"If you want to find her, check Maddox Street. No one came this way. The longer you delay, the more likely she is to escape."
"Shall we ask the bishop who came in? He was also facing the door. As was the rector."
To his relief, Herriard shook his head and left, dragging Stagleigh with him.
Richard returned to the altar, but his mind remained on the girl. Herriard had to be lying--all else aside, he had nothing to steal. So she must be fleeing his advances.
He shook his head, wondering how she'd been unfortunate enough to catch Herriard's eye.
As the brief ceremony drew to a close, he nodded. Misdirecting Herriard wouldn't protect the girl for long--Herriard had to know where she worked. The man would press her again in the future. So the only way to help her was to find her a new position.
While the bishop led the wedding party to the rector's office to sign the register, Richard sped the guests toward Hawthorne House for the wedding breakfast, keeping one eye on the chapel lest the girl slip away before he could address her problem. She wouldn't be the first he'd helped, though Lady Beatrice would likely expire of shock to learn of it. Such activities stood at odds with his reputation.
Georgiana scrubbed the tears from her cheeks, berating herself for falling into despair. No matter what happened, she could not give up. And perhaps her prayers had been answered. Had Derrick really left? She'd heard the front door open and close.
But it was likely only a brief reprieve.
Voices rose as the wedding guests departed. She considered mingling with the crowd, but her fall had turned her cloak from shabby to disgusting. Someone was bound to object.
And Derrick would be watching. He might have hesitated to interrupt a society wedding, but he knew she was here--had probably seen her enter. So he would also know that she was limping. The moment the church was empty, he would search every nook and cranny. He was only waiting because he wanted no witnesses when he found her.
She was trapped.
Questions without answers battered her mind. How many exits did the church have? Which ones would Derrick watch? How many men were helping him? Would the rector stand up to a lord?
Her task seemed hopeless. If she hadn't caught him by surprise, she would never have escaped the first time. That wouldn't happen again, and not just because of Derrick's vigilance. Her swelling ankle was already twice its usual size. The very thought of standing made it throb. And where would she go?
But she had to try. Remaining here was impossible.
The last of the voices died away. The doors closed, again muffling the street noise. She was rising when footsteps approached the chapel.
Derrick! She shrank against the back of the altar.
"You can come out now," said an unfamiliar voice. "Everyone is gone."
She paused, suspecting a trick.
"Are you a thief, as Lord Herriard claims?" asked the man.
"Thief!" she choked. "How dare he?"
"Come out. I can't advise you until I know what he wants."
With no real alternative, she shakily stood, grasping the corner of the altar when her leg tried to buckle. Her eyes widened as she turned toward the door. The blond man from the wedding party blocked her escape.
"You're hurt." His voice gentled.
Before she realized his intent, he swept her into his arms and carried her to a bench.
He was strong.
Also tall. And handsome. His hair brushed the collar of his blue superfine jacket. Brown eyes beamed from a face that reminded her of a Greek god--a rather wicked Eros, actually. Something about him demanded her touch.
Her heart lodged in her throat as she clasped her hands to keep them still.
He joined her on the bench. "Richard, at your service. And you are...?"
"Georgiana." She hesitantly offered her hand. Heat tingled up her arm when he raised it to his lips.
"If you aren't a thief, why does Herriard claim you stole his purse?" His tone seemed curious rather than accusatory. That in itself set her at ease. Most men accepted a lord's word as gospel, no matter how ridiculous his charges.
"He is my cousin and guardian."
His eyes widened. "Guardian? I've not heard that he has a ward."
"Hardly a surprise. He keeps me hidden. Despising my mother's marriage, he refused to bring me out. But his debts are now so great that he's selling me to Lord Stagleigh."
"Not good. Stagleigh is venal."
"I'm glad you agree. My skin crawls whenever he is in the house. I try to avoid him."
"But no longer possible. Stagleigh agreed to pay Derrick's debts in exchange for my hand. Neither of them cares a whit for me. But Derrick needs money so badly that he swore to beat me into compliance. Stagleigh doesn't care. He considers my hatred a challenge."
Richard nodded. "He would. So how did you escape?"
"They didn't realize I overheard them negotiating terms. I slipped out before they could give me the good news. Unfortunately, they discovered my absence almost immediately and chased me here."
"I sent them away."
She shook her head. "They won't go far. Derrick may have declined to make a scene in front of society's crème de la crème, but he knows I'm here. He was too close behind not to have seen me enter."
"Where were you going?"
She sighed. "I had no time to think." She hesitated to say more, but Richard was her best hope of escape. Unless he believed her, he would turn her over to her guardian. So she must reveal the full story--or most of it. "I have no other close relatives, and I have no money--my quarterly allowance is only two pounds."
"That's less than a maid makes."
"I know." She patted the large reticule hanging from her arm. "I grabbed Mama's pearls and a few other things before fleeing. Selling them will pay my keep for a time." She shrugged.
"Do you think he will change his mind?"
"No. But I turn twenty-one in six days. My dowry will then come to me. It will let me set up my own household."
"Not if you hope to retain your reputation."
Again she shrugged. "Society doesn't don't know I exist and would reject me if it did. My mother may have been a baron's daughter, but my father was a merchant. The business went to his partner, of course, but my inheritance will do. One can live on very little in the country."
"But what about marriage?"
She laughed. Bitterly. "Why should I put myself at the mercy of yet another man? Five years with Derrick has cured me of any romantical notions." She had yet to meet a man she could trust when her needs opposed his desires. Even Grandfather had ignored her preferences.
"This isn't the time to argue your future. We must leave. How bad is your ankle?"
"I fell rounding the corner from Conduit to George Street." She lifted her skirts to reveal the ankle, which had swollen even larger. "It can't be broken, for I continued running on it, but it hurts like blazes."
Richard knelt, gently bending the ankle as his fingers prodded the bones. She nearly screamed.
He shook his head. "It's the worst sprain I've seen in some time. I'll have to carry you."
"To my horse. It's waiting on Mill Street, just outside the rector's office."
She tried to protest, but he cut her off.
"I can't remain here. My sister will already be wondering where I am--she just married my best friend, so I'm expected at the breakfast. We'll stash you out of sight until I have time to think about your problem."
"I won't return to Derrick."
"Of course not. What the devil was your father about to leave Herriard in charge of you in the first place? He must have known the man is a scoundrel."
"He named Grandfather. But Grandfather and Derrick's father died in a carriage accident a week after my father died, so Derrick inherited my guardianship along with the title." She still shuddered to recall those days. Her grandfather had wanted her to make the society match her mother had refused, though he'd long since come to terms with his daughter's elopement. Derrick abhorred his grandfather's acceptance of so base a union, but he'd been careful not to admit it while the old man controlled his allowance. Only after the accident had he shown his true colors, relegating his low-class ward to the attics and refusing to recognize their blood ties.
"We will discuss alternatives later. Come along." He lifted her easily, then peeked out the chapel door to make sure the nave was empty before heading for the office and his horse.