A beautiful debutante in Regency London seems destined to make a good match. But the Somerset sisters have made courtship and matrimony a deliciously scandalous affair...
Hyacinth Somerset’s debut is the most anticipated event of the season, as it will be the reclusive young lady’s first public appearance. But within moments of being asked to dance by a dashing stranger, Hyacinth calls him a murderer, then faints dead away! Now all the ton is a aflutter over Hyacinth’s baffling shun of their most intriguing newcomer—the wildly handsome Lachlan Ramsey...
Recently arrived from Scotland, Lachlan only wishes to claim his place in society to secure his sister’s future. When that is threatened by the accusations of a hapless slip of a girl, he will do anything protect his family. Yet it appears Hyacinth has only damaged her own hopes, inspiring the label of hysteric—and ultimately inspiring Lachlan to shelter her from harm. Now if only there were a defense for the surge of feeling he has every time Hyacinth turns her gaze his way. If only there were a way to make her his—while keeping the true secret in his past from destroying everything—and everyone—he cares about...
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Late January, 1818
Blood oozed from the corner of Lachlan's lip, trickled down his chin, and dripped onto the snowy white folds of his perfectly knotted cravat.
Damn it. Another night, another brawl, and another ruined cravat. "Damn you to hell, Ciaran. Why do you always have to strike me in the mouth?"
Lachlan seized his younger brother by the neck of his shirt and shoved him backwards, and the two huge hands squeezing Lachlan's neck fell away as Ciaran stumbled against the railing behind him. He and Ciaran were of a similar size, so it was no easy feat to send his brother sprawling, but then Ciaran was already staggering before Lachlan laid a finger on him.
Drinking the better part of a bottle of whiskey could do that to a man.
Ciaran, who was far too drunk to know any better, staggered to his feet and lurched forward again. "It's not a proper brawl without blood, brother, and mouths bleed."
As if to prove his point, one of Ciaran's enormous fists came barreling straight for Lachlan's face, but before he could land the blow, Lachlan grabbed his hand, threw him off balance with a twist of his arm, and slammed his foot into the side of Ciaran's shin.
Ciaran dropped to his knees, and Lachlan was over him in a flash, his fingers gripping Ciaran's hair to keep him still as he lowered his nose to within an inch of his brother's. "Noses bleed, too. You're begging for my fist in yours, but I've no wish to spill your blood tonight."
He'd spilled Ciaran's blood the night before, and the one before that, but any hopes Lachlan had he wouldn't have to spill it again tonight vanished when a sudden blow to his ribs ripped the breath from his lungs.
"Oof!" He toppled sideways, and landed on the ground next to his brother, gasping for air. He rolled onto his back, but before he could scramble to his feet, Ciaran's knee landed in the center of his chest and pinned him to the ground.
"Aw, come on, Lach, you should have seen that one coming."
Lachlan only grunted in reply. He didn't have the breath to argue, and besides, it was true enough. He should have seen it coming. Even when they were boys Ciaran had always gone for the mouth first, then the ribs, and then —
He didn't have time to spit the curse out before Ciaran's knuckles crashed into his jaw.
Mouth, ribs, jaw. Always the jaw.
"You're not even trying," Ciaran complained. He grabbed a fistful of Lachlan's hair, jerked his head up, and then dropped it back into the dirt with a hard thump. "It's no fun if you don't even try."
Lachlan was trying — trying to end this brawl without having to hurt his brother, but he'd relied too heavily on the whiskey to do the job he didn't want to do with his fists. "Damn it, how the devil are you still conscious, Ciaran?"
Ciaran grinned. "No bloody idea, but here we are, brother, and I doubt your face will be as pretty tomorrow as it was today."
Lachlan jerked and flailed like a fish on a hook, but trying to throw Ciaran off him was like trying to topple a horse. It would have to be a blow, then — either that, or he'd be leaving a puddle of his blood and maybe a tooth or two behind when he left this inn-yard.
Lachlan's arm tensed. He clenched his hand into a fist and waited, knuckles facing out. Ciaran liked his brawls bloody, so he'd go for the mouth again, or perhaps the nose, and when he did his body weight would shift ever so slightly, and ...
Ciaran drew his fist back, but he didn't get a chance to strike before Lachlan's own fist shot up from the side, just far enough to the right so Ciaran never saw it coming. Lachlan winced at the crack of his knuckles against his brother's cheekbone, but the blow did the job. Ciaran listed sideways from the force of it, and before he could regain his balance, Lachlan shoved the heels of his hands under Ciaran's knee, threw him flat onto his back, and leapt to his feet.
"You're set on more bloodshed tonight then, eh Ciaran?"
For a man so deep in his cups, Ciaran staggered back to his feet with impressive agility. "No need to spill another drop of yours. This isn't your fight, brother — not as long as you get out of my damned way."
But it was his fight. His and Ciaran's, just as every fight since they'd left Scotland had been their fight. Instead of accepting his fate, Ciaran's resentment was spreading like an infection from a festering wound.
Helped along by great quantities of whiskey, of course.
"If I was going to get out of your damned way, I would have done it by now." Lachlan turned in a slow circle, facing his brother as Ciaran closed in on him. "Now get up to your bedchamber before I knock that thick head of yours off your neck."
"No, I don't think I'll go up just yet. I fancy another drink."
"You've had enough to drink." If Ciaran returned to the inn and happened to come face to face with the Englishman he'd just accused of cheating at cards, he'd have far more to worry about than Lachlan's fist in his face.
The Englishman's ball between his eyes, for one.
Ciaran laughed, but there was an ugly edge to it. "A Scot who's trapped in England can't ever have enough to drink. But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you, brother, what with you being an Englishman now?"
Lachlan's hands curled into fists. Since they'd arrived on English soil nine days ago, he'd carved a dozen small half-moon scars into his palms. "I'm still Scot enough to knock you unconscious for the rest of the night."
Ciaran shrugged, then raised his fists. "Have it your way. First your blood, and then his."
"Get on with it, then." Lachlan dropped into a crouch, and waited for his brother to strike.
It was one o'clock in the morning, and so dark Lachlan could just make out Ciaran's face in the dim glow filtering into the yard from the inn's window. Ciaran was so drunk he likely wouldn't remember this encounter tomorrow, but Lachlan would still have to pummel his brother bloody before this would end tonight.
His stomach heaved in protest at the thought.
Didn't matter. He could heave all he liked, and it wouldn't make any difference. Whatever else might come of this evening, one thing was certain.
He and Ciaran were going to brawl.
* * *
Two inches only. A mere sliver and no more than that. Two inches was all she dared.
Hyacinth Somerset scrambled to her knees on the window seat, pressed her cheek against the cold glass, and raised her chin so what little fresh air there was could drift across her open mouth.
It had come to this, then. Her world had been shrinking for weeks ... no, longer than that. Months? A year? It had been narrowing, tightening, falling in on itself, and now she was to be smothered in an airless tomb, silent but for the low, continuous drone of impending doom buzzing in her ears, and —
"Hyacinth! What in the world are you doing, child? Close that window at once."
Hyacinth jumped at the sharp command, and her bottom hit the window seat with a hard thump.
Oh, very well, then. She wasn't trapped in an airless tomb, but in a cramped bedchamber at the Horse and Groom Inn. The drone wasn't so much impending doom as it was her grandmother's snoring.
At least it had been.
How in the world was her grandmother still conscious? Despite Hyacinth's warning, she'd dosed herself with enough laudanum to fell a horse.
"Oh, it's dreadful, traveling on country roads," Lady Chase fretted. "Hyacinth? Didn't you hear me? Close the window, and go to bed."
Hyacinth sucked in one last desperate breath of fresh air, and then closed the window with a defeated sigh. "I thought you were resting. Indeed, I'm certain you'd feel much better after a long, deep sleep."
A deep sleep, or a swoon — any form of unconsciousness would do. Hyacinth was an affectionate and dutiful granddaughter, but after hours trapped in a cramped carriage without a breath of fresh air, her patience was at an end.
She hurried across the room and perched on the edge of her grandmother's bed. "Now, lie back and close your eyes, won't you?"
Lady Chase rested the back of a feeble hand against her forehead. "I can't possibly sleep. All that dust and dirt has overset my nerves."
Hyacinth hadn't seen a particle of dust or a speck of dirt since they'd left Huntington Lodge, because her grandmother had insisted they seal the carriage up tighter than ... well, than a tomb.
Still, she owed her grandmother's nerves a debt of gratitude. If it wasn't for their irascibility, they wouldn't have stopped at Aylesford on their way back to London, and Hyacinth would still be trapped in that coach. If only her grandmother's nerves would take the good lady off to sleep, Hyacinth would be grateful to them, indeed.
"Have you my vinaigrette, Hyacinth?"
Hyacinth pressed the bottle into her grandmother's hand, and tucked the coverlet under her chin. "Yes, here it is. Now, go to sleep, won't you?"
Lady Chase patted her hand. "I'll try. You're a good girl, my dear."
She was a good girl. So good — so docile and accommodating.
A sweet young lady, to be sure, and an heiress, of course, but there's no denying she's a bit odd, and meek to a fault. Indeed, you will not find a more timid young lady in all of London. It will be so diverting watching her attempt to survive her season, though indeed, it's unlikely the poor thing will make it through a single ball without fleeing to the ladies' retiring room and cowering there for the rest of the night.
Was this her own voice, taunting her in her head, or was she simply repeating the whispers she'd heard others murmur behind her back? Hyacinth had given up trying to work it out. In the end, it made no difference.
It wasn't, after all, as if the voice were wrong.
There was no sense in dwelling on that now, when her lungs were one gasp away from giving up entirely.
"You see how fragile Iris is, Hyacinth." Her grandmother straightened against her pillows as if she'd suddenly caught a second wind. "I doubt she'll be of much use to us this season."
Hyacinth's sister Iris and her husband Finn, the Marquess of Huntington, had accompanied them on the journey to London, and intended to remain in town for Hyacinth's season. Their other sister Violet and her husband Nick, the Earl of Dare, were on their way from Ashdown Park, as well.
And thank goodness for it, because Hyacinth would need every resource at her disposal if she were going to survive her season. If one was going into battle, her brother-in-law Finn was just the gentleman to lead the charge. Not just because the ton paid such deference to his rank, but because he was grand, stern, imposing, and fiercely protective.
Finn was, in short, rather terrifying. It was a useful quality, particularly when one must deal with the ton. "Finn will be there."
Lady Chase let out a heavy sigh. "Yes, yes, but men are never much help with such things, though I daresay he'll prove more useful than either Iris or Violet."
Her sisters were both enceinte, and suffered from extreme irritability — ah, that is, from fatigue. Yes, yes, that was the proper word for it. Even the short journey from Huntington Lodge had aggravated ... that is, exhausted Iris, and Finn had taken her away to the privacy of their room as soon as they'd arrived at the inn this evening.
"A child is a blessed event, to be sure, but I don't see why both your sisters must be blessed now. It's most inconvenient of them. I don't doubt I'll be left to manage your season myself. It's certain to take a toll on my health, but it can't be helped, and you know I never think of myself in these cases."
Hyacinth surreptitiously wiped her hands on her skirts. Her palms went damp when anyone so much as breathed a word about her upcoming season. There was no telling what wardrobe disaster might occur when she found herself trapped in the middle of a ballroom.
Flimsy silk was, alas, no match for sticky panic.
"I know, Grandmother, and it's your health I'm concerned with at the moment. You need to rest." Hyacinth tried to keep the desperation from her voice. "Consider your nerves."
"Yes, yes. I will." Lady Chase obediently closed her eyes, but before Hyacinth could draw a relieved breath, they popped open again. "That is, I'll try to rest, but I daresay I won't sleep a wink. Not a single wink, Hyacinth, until you're safely married. Another marquess, I think, or even a duke this time ..."
Hyacinth watched her grandmother's lids grow heavier, then heavier still. Any moment now ...
Lady Chase's eyelashes fluttered, and at last, she let out a long sigh. Her head lolled back against the pillow, and the buzz of a snore filled the room.
"Grandmother?" Hyacinth waited, breath held, for her grandmother's eyes to snap open again, but Lady Chase had succumbed to the laudanum at last.
Hyacinth loved her grandmother dearly, but the old lady was at her most cantankerous when her routine was disrupted. It was cause for concern, since Hyacinth's launch into the marriage mart was a mere week away, and certain to be a disruption.
At worst, it would be an utter catastrophe.
It wasn't as if she wanted a season. She didn't. The very idea of being on display for every aristocratic gentleman in London to gawk at made her stomach roil with nausea.
She wanted ... something. Anything, really. She didn't much care what, as long as it made a tiny crack in the shell she'd built around herself.
The trouble was, she hadn't the faintest idea what that thing might be. A suitor, a courtship, a marriage — she didn't have much hope her season would bring her any of those things, but perhaps it would bring her something else.
Something I never could have imagined ...
Before her sisters married, Hyacinth had told herself she'd be content to live out her days in her grandmother's Bedford Square house. After Iris and Violet were gone, the silence she'd once treasured became deafening, and her solitary peace an aching loneliness. With every day that passed the walls of that house pressed in upon her, closer and closer, and her world narrowed by another inch.
No one, not even she, could live within such a tiny sliver of space. So she'd agreed to a season, because she had, quite literally, nothing to lose.
Hyacinth rose from the bed and snatched her cloak from the back of a chair, but she paused when she caught sight of her reflection in the window, illuminated by the light from the lamp behind her.
She hesitated, her cloak clutched in her hand. She'd thought to take a quick turn around the inn-yard for some air, but it was darker than midnight outside. She didn't like to wander about an inn yard in the dark, but neither did she like to deprive her lungs of oxygen, and she'd been half-smothered all day.
She could open the window now, but the bite of cold air was sure to wake her grandmother. Perhaps she'd be better off simply going to bed. Surely, she could hold off on breathing for another eight to ten hours ...
For pity's sake, you're frightened of the dark now? Has it come to this, then?
It was one thing to dread her season — seasons were dreadful, after all — but it was quite another to succumb to childish fears. If she kept on like this, what would be next? Ghosts? Thunderstorms? Large dogs? Spiders?
No. She wouldn't indulge it. It was utter nonsense. Well, all but the spiders, perhaps, because they were wretched, crawly things.
Hyacinth straightened her shoulders, pulled her hood low over her face, and tiptoed across the room and down the stairs. When they'd arrived at the Horse and Groom late this evening, the inn- yard had been crowded with carriages, but not a single soul graced the rows of wooden tables in the dining room now, and the entryway was eerily silent.
A strange shiver of apprehension shot down Hyacinth's spine at the stillness, but she shook it off and made her way toward the open space around the corner of the building, on the side removed from the stables. She'd take a quick turn in the yard to get the blood flowing through her stiff limbs, and then she'd return to her bedchamber —
"... still Scot enough to knock you unconscious for the rest of the night."
Hyacinth turned her head toward the voice, confused, but as soon as she saw the two men, she went still.
They were standing just outside a faint pool of light spilling into the yard from the inn's dining-room window. Both of them were dark-haired, and ... goodness, they were both giants, with shoulders that went on for miles and chests like stone walls. They'd tossed their coats aside and were circling each other in their shirtsleeves, but the fine cut and costly fabric marked them as gentlemen, not servants or stable-hands.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "More or Less a Temptress"
Copyright © 2018 Anna Bradley.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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