Late one night, Susanna Lambert, the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Rockland, bursts uninvited into a stranger's carriage, turning both their worlds upside down. Suddenly, fun-loving Justin Connor finds himself forced to consider marriage!
For Susanna, marrying Justin is a chance to finally escape her cruel stepmother and forget about the rake who ruined her. But as wedding bells begin to chime, Susanna discovers she's carrying a huge secret one that could turn to dust all promises of happiness as Justin's wife!
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'Marry you?' Helena Gammon sat back from Justin Connor, her ungloved hand stilling on his chest beneath his shirt. A horse snorted from somewhere outside his chaise where it sat parked in a long row of conveyances in front of Vauxhall Gardens.
'I'm quite serious. We get on well together, especially at night,' Justin murmured against the buxom little widow's neck. 'Soon, I'll have the resources to establish myself in the wine trade. I'll need a wife who can manage as well in my business as in my bed.'
She shifted out of his embrace and laid her hands in her lap as though they were at tea. 'There are other matters to consider.'
Her lack of enthusiasm wasn't how he'd imagined this proposal unfolding.
'Such as?' Justin leaned back against the squabs, sure he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear.
'You aren't likely to make a go of it.' She shrugged as though his failure was predetermined. 'Not after what happened with the last one.'
'The storm sank the ship.' And my business. He pulled his gaping shirt closed. He thought everyone understood that little fact. Apparently he was wrong. 'There was nothing I or anyone could have done to prevent it.'
Despite months of careful planning, researching, investing, hiring the most capable captain and the sturdiest ship, his first foray into business had dropped to the bottom of the English Channel, taking with it a considerable amount of his money. He hated ships.
'Even if you did manage to make a go of it, I'm tired of being some unpaid servant to my husband's ventures. I worked myself to the bone with Mr Gammon. Now I want to be free of such concerns.' She tugged her bodice up higher over her ample breasts. 'Mr Preston asked me to marry him this morning and I accepted.'
'You did what?' He hadn't realised the old furrier was sniffing around the widow, much less falling on his knees in front of her in infatuation.
'He's rich and has people to take care of his business for him.'
'He's well over sixty and not likely to keep you amused in the evenings.'
'That's why I'm here.' She laid her hand over the open flap of his breeches. 'I thought we could continue.'
He caught her fingers. 'After a year, you should know I won't dally with another man's wife, or help a woman break her marriage vows.'
She pulled back her hand. 'When did you become so serious about anything except Mr Rathbone's business?'
'I tend to be serious when there's the possibility of violence,' Justin growled, seeing Helena's true colours for the first time and despising them. He'd thought their convenient arrangement was based on some measure of respect and affability. He'd been mistaken.
'Well, if that's how you're going to be.' She flicked her skirt down over her calves and ankles. 'Mr Preston is waiting for me inside.'
'You'll regret marrying him.' Justin pushed open the chaise door. 'He might be making a lot of promises now, but once you're his wife, they'll all disappear.'
'You know nothing of the situation.' Mrs Gammon hopped down from the chaise and stormed off across the walk and into the gardens.
Justin slammed the chaise door shut and slumped against the squabs. It galled him to think she'd waited until he'd proposed to reveal her true impression of him, though he supposed it was better now than after the parson's mousetrap was sprung. Justin roughly stuffed his shirt back in his breeches and did up the fall, not bothering to button his coat or redo his cravat. Outside, the excited chatter of ladies and gentlemen passing too close to the chaise as they filed into the gardens filled the air.
Then the door swung open. He jerked upright, thinking Helena had come back, but it wasn't her.
A stunning woman with eyes the colour of the emeralds he'd once handled as collateral fixed her gaze on him, not with the coy calculation of a vixen, but determination. She opened her full lips as if to say something, then changed her mind, pressing them tight together. Gold earrings swung from the small lobes as she raised her foot to step inside the chaise, then paused, as she took in his partial undress and began to back away. Male voices outside the carriage caught her attention and, in a sweep of chestnut curls, she looked to the sound of the noise, then climbed inside and pulled the door shut behind her.
'Drive away, at once,' she commanded, pressing herself against the squabs and out of view of the window.
'No.' Justin pushed open the door, inviting her to leave. Whatever nuisance this was, he wasn't in the mood for it, no matter how pretty it might be.
'Please, you must.' She leaned out of the chaise to pull the door closed, bringing her face much too close to his. A few freckles dotted her nose and her eyelashes were thick and dark above her vivid eyes. She licked her lips nervously, making the red buds glisten in the low light. Her jasmine perfume encircled him like the cool night slipping in through the open door. She was tempting, but she was trouble, he could feel it.
'I've had enough female companionship for one night and don't intend to pay for more.'
She closed the door and sat up across from him with unwarranted indignity. 'I don't want your money, or anything else.'
She waved a bare hand at him, making the gold bracelet adorning her wrist slide down.
'Then what do you want?' He dropped his elbow on the sill of the window and touched his fingers to his chin, more intrigued than annoyed. She wasn't dressed in the flamboyant colours of the night birds, but in a silhouette of shimmering green material which hugged her high breasts, the tops of which rose in lush half-circles above the bodice.
'To be away from here, as fast as possible.' She could barely sit still, but still he didn't give the order to the driver.
'It's none of your business.' The irritation mingling with anxiety in her eyes made them sparkle even brighter.
He levelled one finger at her. 'You're in my carriage, so I think it is my business. Besides, you don't strike me as the kind of woman whose family approves of her jumping in a strange man's vehicle.'
She glanced out of the window, a new panic dimming the slight sweep of pink across her fine nose. 'You don't know the half of it.'
'Enlighten me. I have nothing else to do this evening.'
There was no time for her to tell him as the door swung open again. Two men stared inside, too finely turned out to be whore minders. The older man sighed and clapped his hands over his eyes. The younger man heaved like a bull as he studied first the woman, then Justin and his undone cravat and coat.
'How dare you.' The bull reached in and grabbed Justin by the lapels, hauling him out of the chaise.
Justin's boots hit the step before he regained his footing. He brought his arms up between the bull's and knocked them aside, then pulled back his fist and rammed it into the younger man's face.
The bull dropped to his rear in the dirt, sending up a puff of dust. Stunned but not beaten, he hauled himself to his feet, staggering as he glowered at Justin. 'You'll pay for that.'
'Why don't you stay down?' Justin moved one foot back for balance, then raised his fists. 'It'll hurt less.'
The man rushed at Justin, who slammed his fist into the bull's stomach, making him double over. Then Justin brought his elbows down on the man's back to knock him face first into the dirt. He groaned and rolled over, clutching his middle.
Justin straightened one cufflink. 'I warned you to stay down.'
'No, Father,' the woman yelled from behind him. 'It's not what you think.'
Justin whirled around to see the older man rushing at him with his walking stick raised. The woman jumped between them, spreading out her arms to stop them, her steadying hand meeting Justin's chest. He looked down at the lithe fingers spread out over his loose shirt, her thumb just slipping into the open V to kiss his sweaty skin. It was the lightest of touches, but it could have knocked him across the garden.
She turned her piercing eyes on him and they opened wide with a shock to match his. Tense breaths raised and lowered his chest beneath her palm as he waited for her to pull away, the danger from the other men fading beneath the subtle press of her skin against his. Helena's touch had never rattled him to his boot heels like this woman's, which was igniting him like a reed set to the coals.
'Then what exactly is it?' the older man demanded, lowering his stick, but not easing the hard glare he fixed on the woman.
At last she pulled back her hand and it was almost a relief as the tension between them ebbed, although not completely.
From the ground, the bull coughed and hauled himself to his feet. He staggered over to stand beside the older man. A nasty bruise marred his cheekbone and he failed to fully straighten as he continued to cradle his stomach.
'Is this the man you've been compromising yourself with?' the bull wheezed.
'I've never seen this woman before in my life,' Justin spat out, levelling his gaze at both men and daring either of them to pounce again. Whatever connection he'd experienced with the strange woman was gone.
'This isn't him. I forced my way into his carriage to hide from you.' The woman threw an apologetic look at Justin over her shoulder before turning to face her family. 'I wasn't here for a tryst. I was waiting for Lord Howsham. We were to be married, but he never arrived.'
Her defiance began to wilt beneath the truth and her father's condemning stare. Despite his stinging knuckles, Justin felt a twinge of pity for her. He knew a little something about disappointed hopes.
'Then who is he?' The bull pointed at Justin.
'Who the hell are you?' Justin shot back. This whole situation was growing tiresome.
The older gentleman stepped forward, asserting his authority the way Justin had seen his own father do so many times. 'I'm Horace Aberton, Duke of Rockland, and this is my son, Edgar, Marquess of Sutton, and my daughter, Miss Susanna Lambert.'
Justin raised an eyebrow at the hesitation which met Lord Rockland's admission of the woman's relationship to him. Justin supposed if he gave a fig for what the upper classes got up to when they weren't trying to thump him outside Vauxhall Gardens, he'd understand the hesitation, but he didn't and therefore didn't care.
'If you expect me to be impressed, I'm not.' Justin had helped collect enough debts from men like Lord Rockland to not be cowed by their grand titles and lack of manners.
'How dare you?' Lord Sutton stomped forward, ready for another beating.
'Stop.' Lord Rockland's booming voice pulled him back, muzzling but not completely checking the bull's anger. 'I think we've had enough fighting for one night. I believe an apology is in order, Mr?'
'Connor.' Justin jerked straight the lapels of his coat.
'I'm sorry for offending you this evening and for holding you responsible for an inappropriate situation in which you were not involved.' Lord Rockland laid a large hand on his chest, his diamond ring flashing in the lantern light. 'Surely you understand how easy it was to make such a mistake.' 'No, not particularly.'
'Then perhaps you can understand the need for discretion.'
'It's not my discretion you need to worry about.' He flung a look at Miss Lambert, who boldly faced him. He had to give the woman her due; she was no cowering miss.
'True, but I'd like us to come to some understanding about your tact in this matter. If you'd be so kind as to pay a call on me tomorrow at noon, I believe I can make it worth your while.'
Justin wanted nothing more to do with this trio, but he did need money to finally put his last venture behind him and start again. He recognised opportunity when it came crashing through his chaise door. 'I believe you can.'
'Good. Until tomorrow.' Lord Rockland bowed to Justin before ushering his wayward progeny away.
'He doesn't deserve' Lord Sutton sputtered.
'After the beating he gave you, I recommend you shut your mouth.' Lord Rockland's admonishment silenced any further protest.
Only Miss Lambert dared to turn and watch Justin as she strode away with her father and brother. It was a plaintive glance, but Justin wasn't in the mood for extending more pity or forgiveness. With his plans for the evening in tatters, he stepped back into his chaise and made for home. With any luck, tomorrow would be better. He'd receive a tidy sum of an apology from the duke, the kind he needed to repay Philip for the money he'd invested and lost in Justin's last venture, and secure the necessary merchandise to establish himself in the wine trade. Nature had defeated him last time. It wouldn't happen again. He'd succeed, no matter what Helena or anyone else thought.