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Kidnapped! Dishonoured! Forced to marry one's abductor to avoid the scandal!
It was almost too perfect. Jack Briggs could hardly contain his glee, though this was not the moment to reveal it. The plans he'd set in motion at the beginning of the London Season were coming together, suddenly, unexpectedly, and in a way almost too perfect for words. He would have a rich and well-born wife and he'd have her months ahead of schedule.
Miss Cynthia Banester was not the woman he'd expected to catch. There had been no time to lay the groundwork for a less inauspicious campaign for her hand. But she was gentle born, wealthy and more than middling pretty. Jack might go so far as to call her beautiful, for the ginger hair and full figure were very much to his personal taste. She was certainly desirable.
But more importantly, she was everything that the Earl of Spayne had requested Jack bring to his family by marrying. Of course, Jack had expected to present his choice to the peer for approval before making an offer. This impromptu abduction had changed everything. Now that weapons had been drawn, there could be no turning back. He would have her, whether the earl liked her or not.
The girl smiled at him in a hopeful, rather worried way, as though her own happiness depended on his cooperation, and edged between him and the doorway of the gazebo they shared. 'I am sorry, Lord Kenton, but I cannot permit you to leave. If you attempt it, I will be forced to shoot you.'
Jack watched the barrel of the little pistol she held moving in twitching figure eights as she tried to keep it steady. If the gun fired, by accident or with intent, Miss Banester would become the second most beautiful woman to have shot him. But if she did not control her aim, it could prove more damaging than a hurried leap from a courtesan's boudoir window. At such close range, there was a very real chance she might hit something he wished to keep whole.
He kept his hands raised, put on his best smile and worked his magic upon her. 'I would not dream of leaving, my dear. Did I not come willingly to this spot when you requested me to follow you away from the other guests?'
'That was because you expected some dalliance with me,' she said, giving a wise nod. Her assessment was accurate, but delivered with a coldness that surprised him. 'You thought me foolish enough to leave a crowded ballroom to go walking in a dark garden with a man who is nearly a stranger to me.' She tightened her grip on the pistol and for a moment, it stilled, before the muzzle drooped alarmingly in the direction of his manhood.
'I might have suspected some such thing,' Jack admitted. 'You can hardly blame me for it. In most instances, that is precisely what your sudden interest in a tete-a-tete would mean. But I can see that is not the case. Perhaps, if you were to lay down your weapon, you might accept my parole. I am sure we could discuss your reasons for this meeting without the threat of violence. If I have done something to upset you, I would be only too happy to apologise.' At length, and with as much physicality as their inevitable discovery would permit.
He smiled in anticipation. The folly she'd lured him to was still within earshot of the house. One overloud shriek of delight and they would be found out. Her reputation would be ruined. And he would offer nobly, albeit with proper resignation, for her lovely white hand. If he could just coax her out of her pistol, the end of hostility would mean the beginning of seduction. Stitching together the tatters of her innocence for a church wedding would be far preferable to mending a hole in his coat or body.
She stared back at him, large green eyes narrowed in scepticism. 'If I give up the gun, what would I have to protect me from your advances?'
Absolutely nothing. She blinked at him, as though she had heard his thoughts, and her mouth puckered, ready to be kissed. The moonlight glinted in her copper curls and gave a faint luminosity to her already magnificent bosom, making him wonder at the rest of the body hiding beneath her ladylike muslin gown. Such lush curves brought to mind an earthy sensuality not present in the eligible innocents he'd been courting. Though her friends might shorten Cynthia to Thea, Jack thought some variation on Cyn would be more appropriate. She was sinfully tempting and everything he desired in a bedmate. It might be quite pleasant to lose his freedom to her.
He lowered his hands a fraction, turning them palms up in supplication. 'Is it really necessary to keep me at a distance? You must understand that, if I remain as you wish, your honour will be compromised. When we are discovered, as we well might be, I shall be forced to marry you.'
She nodded vigorously. Curls and bosom bounced in response. 'That was precisely what I hoped,' she said.
That was most unexpected, but it certainly saved him time in wooing. 'Your methods for seeking my offer are rather unorthodox,' he said, lowering his hands a little farther. 'I will not hold them against you should we marry. I am not opposed to the institution itself and willing to entertain the proposition that there be a union between us. But I will not allow the woman I marry to bring a pistol into the bedroom.'
'Perfectly understandable,' she agreed. But she showed no sign of relinquishing her weapon.
'Surely, if you are intent on having me, it will do no harm to become better acquainted before that time.' He smiled again, his mouth watering at the thought of her excessively kissable lips.
'I have no objection to knowing you better,' she agreed. 'But I am sure that it can be done across this distance.' She took a tighter grip on the pistol.
'Are you sure?' He adjusted his posture to make best use of the available light and felt the moon outline his profile as he stretched a hand toward her. It was vain of him to strike such a pose, but he'd heard ladies sighing over it, often enough. And until the gun was back in her reticule, he needed all the good will he could muster. 'There would be no risk to our sitting side by side, admiring the roses through the lattice.' He took a deep breath. 'The air is like perfume and the moonlight tints the blossoms with silver.'
'I am sure they will be just as lovely after we are wed,' she responded.
'Which we most certainly will be,' he assured her. 'You have my word of that. Nothing will happen that you do not thoroughly enjoy.' They would both enjoy it, if he was not mistaken.
'It would not be proper.'
'A kiss or two between a couple on the day of their betrothal is not amiss.'
The gun did not move. 'You may kiss me once. When my parents have discovered us and can witness it.'
Damn. He had found in the past that many young ladies were curious about such things and eager to take advantage, or be taken advantage of, once they knew there was no risk of discovery. This one seemed to court disaster, as long as it was disaster delayed.
'Once we are married, I will expect you to kiss me far more than once,' he reminded her. 'And do other things as well.' He raised an eyebrow to imply wicked, but unnamed, behaviours, wondering how much she knew of them. If she was angling after some gallant union, with him sleeping above the sheet and her beneath, she was sorely mistaken.
'You are speaking of performing the marital act,' she said in a prim way that was all the more erotic for its frankness.
'I do like performing,' he admitted quite truthfully. Regular shows and matinees.
'I have no objection to that,' she said.
'That is good to know,' he said, imagining her creamy-white skin flushed pink after an acting lesson.
'But not tonight,' she said. 'I must be married first.'
'We,' he reminded her. 'I will be marrying as well. And, if I may ask, why have you chosen me for your groom? Not that I object, overly. I intended to marry this Season and had not fixed my affections elsewhere. But we hardly know each other.'
'It has been difficult to attract your attention,' she said, blinking at him again.
Which was another odd thing. He had always favoured buxom redheads. She was that in spades. If she'd made any effort at all to catch his eye, he was sure he'd have responded. With all the talk of getting her to bed, he was responding now, in an involuntary and physical way.
Then he glanced at her gun, which was still pointed at his middle, and felt the tightness in his breeches easing. 'You have my full attention tonight. If I did not notice you before?' He shrugged. 'At Almack's and the like, young ladies seem to make an effort to be underfoot and in the way. Did you express an interest in making a match with me?'
She bit her lip. 'Until recently, I did not realise how urgent it was that I marry you.' There was a strange pause, as though she had only just remembered to be enamoured of him, specifically. 'You are the catch of the Season, Lord Kenton. And I am shy in gatherings and did not know how to gain your favour, other than this. As they say, "We should be woo'd and were not made to woo".'
'Shakespeare?' Jack's heart beat iambic pentameter in time with her words. There was no quicker way to gain his attention than quoting the Bard. But she could not know him as well as that, or she'd never have lured him out in the garden. 'And you say it is urgent that you find a husband?'
'Oh, yes.' She nodded again vigorously.
He stared down at her jiggling chest and had to force his mind back to the primary reason that a young lady might have for an urgent marriage. If there was a child in less than nine months, he must hope that it looked more like its mother than its father.
Spayne should have considered this and been more specific before sending Jack on this mission. He had requested a rich daughter-in-law. But he must have known that marriages resulted in babies. Considering his own past, Jack had no right to quibble about legitimacy. If Spayne was so desperate for an heir to act as he had, would it really matter if the child was Jack's or someone else's?
Then the moonlight cast a particularly bright beam through the lattice of the gazebo and he saw the dusting of freckles on her white shoulders, like cinnamon and sugar on a blancmange. Spayne's possible objections could be damned along with the earl himself. A man had needs and the luscious body of Miss Cynthia Banester was suited so perfectly to Jack's that she might have been heaven sent.
He threw his hands in the air in a gesture of helplessness. 'Far be it from me to stand in the way of a lady who knows her own mind. You are from a respectable family. You seem intent on having me.' And he'd have her as well. Though she was damned prickly on the subject tonight, if she was the victim of a previous fall from grace he need have no scruples about the rather unusual nature of his side of their union. A little deception was a good thing, when shared equally between partners. 'I am yours. Since you will not let me have a kiss, let us seal the bargain.' He dropped a hand and thrust it out to her for a shake.
She gave him a sidelong glance, as though searching for the trick, and cautiously offered her left, elegantly gloved hand.
'The right,' he said firmly. 'Else it shall not be official.'
She stared at him, then at the little pistol she held, and then back to him before cautiously setting it down on the bench beside her and offering her right hand.
He seized it and dropped to a seat on the bench behind him, pulling her forwards into his lap, pinioning her wrists between them so that she could not retrieve her weapon. She was a pleasant weight against him. His member, which had flagged at the sight of the gun barrel, sprang to life again.
'Unhand me this instant,' she said, giving a wiggle that was quite delicious.
'In a bit,' he agreed. 'When I am sure you will not just take up arms against me and once we have established that I am the aggressor and not the victim. If you mean us to be discovered, it would do my pride an injury to have the world thinking you had trapped me into marriage at gunpoint.' He wrapped an arm about her waist, drawing her farther forwards until she was very near to straddling him. The kicking of her slippered feet against his legs accentuated the rocking, creating a friction that inflamed his imagination as well as his body.
'It is better that they think I am to blame, taking advantage of an innocent girl. I shall admit that I was overcome by your beauty and acted in haste to secure you. When your father demands an immediate marriage, I will agree.'
'You would really do that for me?' She ceased struggling, her body settling against his in relief.
Her sudden gratitude made him feel almost heroic for wanting to ravish her. He was doing her a service. 'Of course, my pet,' he said. 'But we must do our best to sell the story, so that all might believe it. I am the swain, overcome by desire. And you are the hapless maiden, caught in my clutches.'
'I am,' she said sceptically.
'Of course,' he reminded her. 'See, I am clutching you.' He brought his hands to her bottom and squeezed it, adjusting her in his lap.
'Oh, dear.' The contact between them was intimate. If she had any understanding of anatomy, it would explain why Cyn Banester was finally nonplussed.
He raised a hand to her face and drew one finger down her cheek, tangling with a red curl. 'Now I will take the kiss you offered. When I am through with you, you shall scream and bring the house down upon us, so that I might plead convincingly for your hand.' Those wide green eyes were blinking at him again, more expectant than frightened.