Emily Talcott has a sister to fire off into the season and a father whose gambling debts are threatening to bring the whole family to bankruptcy, and is secretly the author of the immensely popular books of poetry supposedly written by the French Marquis de la Cour. Damon, Lord Wentworth's arrival in her life creates another complication—a very dangerous one, for she quickly realizes why the devilishly handsome viscount has gained the name of “Demon Wentworth.” He has a reputation for liking games of cards with high stakes and women with low morals. Now her father owes him for gambling losses. If only her newest book could earn enough to pay them off . . .
Everything gets complicated when an imposter claims to be the French poet. How can Emily denounce him? What if he takes her profits? What if his plan to marry her sister under false pretenses succeeds? Her only ally, though she cannot tell him the truth of her deception, is Damon. Like her, he is interested in halting the false marquis. He will not explain why, halting her questions with heated kisses. Suddenly Emily begins to realize how silly her poetry is, because it cannot compare with truly falling in love. Can she trust Damon to help her save her sister and not break her own heart?
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Rhyme and Reason
A Regency Romance
By Jo Ann Ferguson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Jo Ann Ferguson
All rights reserved.
Snoring was unquestionably not her sister Miriam's finest trait, but Emily Talcott ignored the low rumble as she paced from the wide door to the window at the front of the cozy sitting room. She did not push aside the gold drapes. Too often during the long night, she had peered out of the window overlooking the shadowed heart of Hanover Square. The hour now was so far toward dawn that not a carriage would be moving on the street. 'Twas too late for most revelers to be about and too early for the peddlers.
She should be accustomed to waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Yet, she could not sit still. She kept walking back and forth past her slumbering sister in the white satin wing chair. Her ears strained for the sound of the clatter of wheels upon the cobbles as a hired cab slowed in front of the house. All she heard were her sister's snores, for the night was undisturbed. Going back to the chair in the middle of the dimly lit room, she pulled a coverlet over Miriam, whose hair was the same rich gold as the carpet and the striped silk on the walls.
Dear Miriam! Her sister should have been abed hours before, but she had not been able to sleep as she relished retelling all that she had experienced this evening. Even though Emily had been at her side through most of the gathering, Miriam liked to relive every conversation and bit of scan-mag she had heard among the guests.
As a bell from the mantel clock chimed four times, its sound melancholy in the depths of the night, Emily sighed again. She had been an air-dreamer to hope Papa would be home before they returned from Miss Prine's coming-out. The ball had been lovely, and Miriam had stood up with three different men who had not concealed their interest in calling during the at home the Talcotts held weekly.
Emily pulled the lacy collar of her mauve dressing gown more tightly to her chin as she continued her anxious journey from the window to the door opening onto the foyer and back. She should be delighting in what had happened this evening. The party had been an undeniable success for Miriam. Two of the men, who had been intrigued with Miriam, were not the best choice, in Emily's opinion, for her younger sister, but Lord Reiss came from an excellent family. Although his meandering conversation always dulled Emily's mind with ennui, she thought Miriam had enjoyed his attentions.
Miriam's first Season was sure to end with a successful marriage. Her sister's golden curls—which contrasted with Emily's smoky tresses—as well as her merry blue eyes and warm smile made her the center of attention at any party, but Miriam had shown no particular interest in any of the suitors last night.
With a sigh, Emily knew she could not explain to either Miriam or Papa why she was so eager to see her sister wed. Neither of them suspected the fragile state of their household, for she had taken great pains to keep the truth hidden. Only Kilmartin might know about their precarious finances, because Emily had chanced upon her abigail perusing the accounting books that usually were locked in the drawer of Emily's writing desk. Emily was not worried, though. Kilmartin had been with the family for enough years to keep her tongue in her head. Miriam had not seemed to notice Kilmartin's tongue clicking in dread whenever Miriam spoke of the need for a new gown. Papa never noticed anything beyond his cards.
Cards! Dash the soul who had invented the devil's books! If it were not for such sport, the family would not be in such trouble.
The amount of money Emily had set aside for her sister's nuptials was being depleted by Papa's gambling, and she was uncertain when she would be able to replenish it. She had been able to get nothing definite from Mr. Homsby the last time she had visited his bookshop. Nothing but complaints that his new patron wanted to review the business and its accounts before embarking on any new projects. That was understandable, but it left Emily—and her family—in shaky circumstances.
Forcing herself to sit, she stared at the door. Worrying about the bookseller did no good. Mr. Homsby had promised to send her a message as soon as he had answers for her. In spite of his penurious ways, she doubted if he would forget his vow to her.
Where was Papa? So many evenings he had stayed out late, but seldom this late. She tried to shake from her head the images of pickpockets and land-pirates setting upon her father. Going to the window, she looked out.
You are letting your rambunctious imagination control you. One of these days, it will betray you.
How often Papa had repeated those words to her! And he was right. She wished she could be more like her prosaic father and her sister. Neither of them imagined anything more interesting than the entertainments available during the Season. Miriam delighted in every conversation, even if the topic was the same one she had heard discussed over and over.
Emily was too easily bored by the same music, people and wine. Instead of waiting for some young man to ask her to stand up with him, she found herself captured by the sights and sounds and people she passed each day and ... imagining ...
How the faint moonlight sparkling in the center of the square looked like milk that had been splattered across the cobbles and how ...
Her thoughts were interrupted by the welcome sound of carriage wheels. Brazenly, she pulled the drapes farther aside. She smiled when she saw a closed carriage slowing to a stop in front of the door.
At last! Emily breathed a sigh of relief, then took another deep breath to calm the exasperation boiling within her. Dash it! If only Papa thought of something other than the cards in front of him. He could have sent word to Hanover Square that he would be late; then she would not have worried. Or not as much.
Pausing only long enough to discover if Miriam was awake, and seeing she was not, although she had shifted and no longer snored, Emily tiptoed out into the hallway. She hurried to the stairs and rushed down to the foyer which was the glory of the house. The white marble floor was cool through her thin slippers. Overhead, a crystal chandelier sprayed light onto the painted friezes climbing the simple stairs of darkest mahogany.
Johnson nodded to her as he reached for the door. She stood by the base of the stairs and watched the short, round butler lift the latch. Wishing her father had hired a more mature man for this important job, Emily could hear Mrs. Hazlet, the housekeeper, complaining about the young man's inability to handle his important position. Emily had listened without comment, although she shared the housekeeper's concerns about Johnson's competence.
The dank smell of dew flooded the entry when the door opened. Johnson held up a lamp to light the steps.
Emily said, "Papa, I was beginning to—" Her hands clutched the throat of her dressing gown when she realized her father was not alone.
Beside Charles Talcott stood an imposing man. In fact, the tall man was supporting him. He helped her father lift his foot up over the top step, then guided him into the circle of light. The stranger's hair was a gleaming black beneath his stylish beaver. Although her father's cravat was loosened and his black evening coat falling haphazardly from one shoulder, the other man looked as if he had stepped from a fashion-plate. His black breeches and gold waistcoat were unblemished, and not a hint of dust detracted from the perfection of his navy coat. The buckles on his shoes flashed silver as he entered the foyer, her father's arm draped over his shoulder.
Emily put out her hands as her father swayed, but faltered when the stranger regarded her with a cold, gray stare. Heat climbed her cheeks when that gaze roamed along her déshabille. Knowing she looked no better than a demirep with her black hair streaming down her wrapper, she raised her chin. This was her home. She had expected no one other than Papa.
"I trust," said the stranger in a warm tenor voice that did not match his austere expression, "Mr. Talcott's man can be called with all due haste to assist him to bed."
Emily signaled to the butler. Johnson nodded and stepped back, but not before she saw his covert smile. She tried to disregard his impertinent behavior—Why did he always have to forget his place when her father was late?—as he hurried to call for Bollings, Papa's valet.
"Thank you for escorting my father home, sir," she said quietly to the stranger.
The tall man had the decency to hide his astonishment at her cool words, save for a widening of his eyes. "I had doubts he could find his own way here."
"Would have been fine. Told you that." Papa mumbled something, then swayed.
The stranger said, "He is quite glorious tonight."
Emily could not help smiling at his droll comment. Papa seldom got foxed, but, when he did, he lost his head completely in the attempt to give the bottle a black eye and himself a headache the next day.
She stepped aside as Bollings rushed down the stairs and slipped his shoulder under Papa's other arm.
The tall man eased away, tugging on his gray gloves. "There are quite a few steps ahead of you. Do you want some help?"
"I can manage," the pudgy valet said through clenched teeth as he turned Papa toward the staircase.
"Do help him, Johnson," Emily urged. "Those steps are steep."
The butler nodded, but she saw his indignation at being assigned what, to his mind, was such a demeaning task. Vowing to speak to him later when only his ears would hear her exasperation, she looked back at the man by the door.
"Thank you again, sir, for your kindness."
"You are welcome." The tall man smiled and turned toward the door. When he closed it with himself still within the foyer, she fought to hide her amazement that he would act as if she had invited him to run tame through her father's home when he was a stranger.
But he is no stranger to Papa, she reminded herself. That thought offered little solace when her father, who was as drunk as a piper, was on his way to the land of nod, and she was standing in the foyer with a handsome stranger in the hour before dawn.
Her uneasiness must have been visible because the man said, "I trust I may wait until Mr. Talcott's man returns."
"Of course," she answered, her voice rather faint. She recognized his satisfied tone. It could mean but one thing. Oh, Papa! How could you gamble all night when the butcher sent a note demanding payment today? She could not blame this tall man. If Papa had lost heavily to him at the card table, he had every right to expect to collect his winnings.
"Is there somewhere I may wait?" Again he smiled, but she saw little warmth in his expression. "I do not want to keep you from your own sleep, Miss Talcott."
She dampened her lips, then said, "Forgive me, sir. Do come upstairs." Pausing as she put her foot on the first riser, she added, "I must ask you to be quiet, for my sister is asleep in the sitting room."
"You Talcotts choose the oddest places to fall asleep. Your father in the middle of my foyer, your sister in a sitting room. Do you, perchance, prefer a more traditional mode and slumber in a bed?"
For once glad her cheeks did not betray her with a blush as Miriam's porcelain skin often did, Emily said, "We may talk more comfortably in the parlor."
"Upon another subject, I collect."
His chuckle followed her up the stairs, spurring her feet to a more rapid pace. The sound was rich and much warmer than his smile, but she had not stayed up through the night to provide fodder for this man's peculiar sense of humor. Hearing no footfalls behind her, she wondered if he had decided not to follow her.
She turned, and her nose nearly struck his. Knowing her astonishment was mirrored in his silver-gray eyes, she edged back when a slow smile tilted his lips. Unlike his other smiles, this one possessed an obvious warmth which reminded her how unsuitably dressed she was to receive callers, even a most unexpected one.
"Is something amiss, Miss Talcott?" he asked.
"Then is there a reason why you have stopped so suddenly I almost trod on the hem of your wrapper?"
His hand slid up the bannister, brushing hers. A shock, as abrupt and resonating as a clap of thunder, burst through her. She pulled her hand away and spun to hurry up the stairs, hoping that was not a muffled laugh she heard behind her.
The long lace at the wrists of her dressing gown tickled her palm as she motioned toward the parlor across the hall from where her sister slumbered, unaware of the contretemps in the foyer. She drew the doors of the sitting room closed and leaned against them as she said, "Please make yourself comfortable in the parlor, sir. I believe Johnson left some brandy on the sideboard."
"You are not joining me?"
"I thought to check with Papa's valet."
"Of course, although the man seemed quite capable of handling the situation. I trust his competence does not come from regular practice."
Emily frowned. "Sir, Papa is not himself tonight."
"This morning," he corrected, then smiled and gestured for her to lead the way into the parlor.
She was about to refuse, then silently she admonished herself. He had every right to expect she would act as his hostess. With his steady gaze slicing into her back, she heard no sound but her wrapper's train swishing on the floor and the light sound of his shoes. She hushed the uneasy suspicion that she was prey being stalked by a skilled hunter.
The light-green parlor would be bright in the morning sunshine, but now was lackluster with the dim light from the small lamp set on a table near the marble hearth. She crossed the dark carpet to the cherry sideboard. Picking up the bottle of brandy set there, she asked, "Would you like a glass, sir?"
"If you would join me."
"I find it a bit late for brandy."
"Or a bit early."
Emily wished he would stop funning her, for she did not feel the least like laughing. Saying nothing, she put the bottle back on the sideboard and sat on a settee which was upholstered in pale green muslin. As if he were a frequent guest, the man made himself comfortable on the settee facing her.
Or tried to make himself comfortable, she noted with a stray hint of amusement. The delicate piece of furniture did not welcome his height. He finally stretched his legs beneath the low table set between them. When he regarded her with an abrupt frown, she lost any inclination to smile.
"Since you have not corrected me when I have addressed you," he said into the silence, "I would collect you are Miss Talcott."
"Emily Talcott." Folding her hands in her lap, she tried to keep her voice as even as his. "Did you meet Papa at the card table this evening?"
"We have played before, but no session has gone this long."
"I am certain Papa would have been eager to settle his debts with you if he were more himself," she answered, pleased she could speak past the thickness in her throat. How much had Papa lost tonight? She hoped the total would be no more than a few guineas. If it were more—There was no more. "Under these unfortunate circumstances, I pray you do not consider it untoward of me to handle the settlement of his obligations in his stead."
"You need not concern yourself about such matters, Miss Talcott."
"But I do." She wished he would be less polite. Surely it had been simpler to deal with the men who snarled their demands for their winnings with no hint of courtesy. Raising her chin so she could meet his eyes that were above hers even when they sat, she said, "We are a proud family, and our pride comes from always paying our debts, Mr.—?"
He smiled again, and his face was transformed from its stern façade. Although she had seen it on the stairs, his metamorphosis startled her anew, for she saw glints of mirth in his eyes that had been steel cold. "Forgive me, Miss Talcott, for being such a confirmed chucklehead that I failed to introduce myself. May I blame it on the hour? Allow me to redeem my tarnished honor." He stood and, lifting her hand, bowed smoothly over her fingers. "I am Damon Wentworth."
"Wentworth?" She almost choked on the name, but restrained herself enough to ask, "The viscount?"
"One and the same."
Emily was sure her heart had plummeted into her slippers. What a perfect widgeon she was! She should have guessed Papa was fated to meet this rogue sooner or later, for Lord Wentworth's reputation was well known throughout the Polite World. Even she, who disdained the whisper of gossip, could not be unaware of the viscount's hunt for adversaries who were as skilled at cards as he and who had pockets plump enough to keep the stakes high.
Charles Talcott was neither.
"Dare I believe we have met before, Miss Talcott?" he continued when she remained silent. He gave her a warm smile, a smile which she might have deemed charming under other circumstances.
"No, my lord," she managed to say.
"For that, I'm glad."
Excerpted from Rhyme and Reason by Jo Ann Ferguson. Copyright © 1998 Jo Ann Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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