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When Dashing Met Danger
By Shana Galen
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Shana Galen
All right reserved.
Early May 1805
"Stop!" hissed a woman's voice.
"Darling, just one kiss. Come here, you silly goose."
"Not now, Reginald. Behave yourself, please."
Sprawled on a worn stone bench deep in the gardens of Lord and Lady Pool's London town house, Alexander Scarston, the Earl of Selbourne, heaved a sigh. He'd retreated to the extensive gardens hoping to escape the hordes in attendance at one of the premier balls of the Season, and he was in no in mood for young lovers.
"Reginald, I said stop." The woman's voice was more insistent now. Closer as well. Looking for an escape, Alex peered into the shadows cast by the overgrown rhododendron bushes and wild roses. If he could avoid the garishly lit town house, he could be in his carriage and on his way to his club in a quarter hour at most.
He saw no reason to revisit the ball. Judging from his brief foray into the madness earlier, there was little likelihood that he would gain the information Pitt wanted, and every likelihood he would be accosted by some annoying matron who simply had to introduce him to her niece or daughter or second cousin twice removed, whom she knew an eligible earl such as himself would absolutely adore.
"Darling, don't fight me." An undertone of annoyance belied theman's sickly sweet tone.
Selbourne decided to cut his losses, and he rose and melted into the shadows of the massive oaks towering behind him. But he'd waited a moment too long and found himself forgetting to breathe when he saw the woman glide through an opening in the hedge. Alex stared. How had he missed this exquisite creature inside?
In the cloud-filtered moonlight, the thick gold hair piled high on her head glittered. Her features had beenmolded by a true artist: high cheekbones; small, straight nose; full mouth; elegantly curved jaw line. Her neck was long and slender, her skin like fine ivory. A band of brilliant amethysts sparkled at her neck, and below the gems, he noted the swell of rounded breasts sheathed in shimmering white silk. The breeze played with her skirts and hinted at a willowy figure--small waist, shapely hips, and long, supple legs.
She was stunning, more so in her anger.
"If you don't cease this instant, Reginald, I'll--"
Her partner chuckled. "You'll what?" He pushed through the hedge and grasped her elbow for support. With clumsy movements, his mouth fell on hers. She shoved him away but was prevented from escape when her gown caught on the protruding branches of the hedge.
"Stop teasing me." The man's words were slurred, and he almost knocked her over as he backed her toward the bench Alex had just vacated. All trace of charm was gone from his tone. In the shadows, Alex tensed.
The woman twisted, fighting to escape the drunken man's hold. "Reginald, I said st--"
His lips savaged her neck, cutting her off. Alex took two steps forward but paused when the woman cried, "Get off me this instant!" She pushed Reginald back, and he flailed for an instant before grasping the back of her neck. His other hand snaked out and groped her breast. Alex heard her hand crack against the man's cheek.
Reginald's head jerked. "Lucia, stop acting so prudish," he slurred. "No one can see us."
Alex had grasped two handfuls of the bushes concealing him, prepared to intercede, when an alarm rang in his head.
Where had he heard that name before? It wasn't a common name among ladies of the ton, and the Italian pronunciation the man had given it tickled Alex's memory. "Bloody hell," he said under his breath. "Not her." Just his luck to run into Lucia when he was trying to save the bloody country.
"This isn't proper, my lord," Lucia was saying. "And if you weren't so drunk, you'd realize that. Now let me go before I scream."
Reginald chuckled. "You won't scream." He dragged his hand roughly through her hair, loosening it so it fell in heavy, silver-streaked waves to her waist. Lucia flinched.
"You don't want to upset your father. He likes me."
"Well, I don't." Alex's voice was low and menacing as he strode from the murky dark of the foliage into full view of the bastard still gripping Lucia. "Unless you want your teeth knocked to the back of your throat, release the lady and walk away."
Lucia jumped and whipped her head in Alex's direction. He fixed his glare on her partner.
"I don't know who you are"--Reginald pointed a chubby finger at him--"but I'll have you know this lady is my fiancee. Go find your own." He gave Lucia a sloppy smile, and she took advantage of the moment to scoot out of his reach.
Alex smiled. He'd been in a foul mood all evening and would relish plowing his fist into the man's soft, pudgy middle. A good fight was just what he needed right now.
"Your fiancee?" He shot Lucia an incredulous look. "Unfortunately, the lady and I have a more intimate connection. I'm her brother-in-law." Or close enough, he amended.
Lucia's eyes grew into dark moons as she studied him, and when Reginald glanced at her for confirmation, she gave a distracted nod.
"Lord S-S-Selbourne. At last we meet." Reginald staggered back. "Perhaps not on the best of terms, but nevertheless, I'm pl-pl-pleased to make your acquaintance." He stumbled over a graceless bow, eyes wide with alarm.
Alex's gaze returned to Lucia's and held. Her eyes were still wide and unreadable.
"Your name, sir?" Alex's attention never left Lucia.
"Viscount Dandridge," Lucia supplied, as her fiance seemed to have forgotten. Alex nodded, effectively dismissing the man from his thoughts. He wouldn't waste his time with the whey-faced coward. But Lucia . . .
Excerpted from When Dashing Met Danger by Shana Galen Copyright © 2006 by Shana Galen. Excerpted by permission.
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