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"Rule, how good of you to come!" His hostess for the evening, Lady Annabelle Greer, floated toward him across the elaborately decorated ballroom in the London mansion she shared with her husband, Travis. "And I see you have brought Lucas with you."
Her gaze shifted across the room to where his best friend, Lucas Barclay, made conversation with a delectable young widow he had only just recently met. Rule and Luke had attended Oxford together. Beyond that, they were shirtsleeve relatives of a sort. Rule's oldest brother, Royal, the Duke of Bransford, was married to a cousin of Luke's brother's wife.
Rule returned his attention to his hostess. "It's good to see you, my lady." With her light brown hair and clear blue eyes, Annabelle Townsend Greer was nearing thirty and the mother of three children, yet she was still a beautiful woman.
"I'm surprised you came. You are usually too busy working." She tapped her painted fan against his shoulder. "Don't you know it is highly improper for a member of the aristocracy to labor for money like a commoner?" She grinned. "But then, none of you Dewars have ever given a fig for propriety."
Rule grinned back. "I might say the same for you, my lady." He could still recall rumors he had heard of the torrid affair that had resulted in Annabelle's marriage to Travis Greer, a former lieutenant in the British cavalry, confirmed bachelor and his brother Reese's best friend.
Anna just laughed. "I admit to being a bit outrageous at times. Not recently, though."
Rule smiled. "No, not since your husband had the courage to take you in hand."
Anna grinned at the ridiculous remark. If anything, it was the other way round. Travis walked up just then, a well-built man with sandy-brown hair and small, gold-rimmed spectacles who was clearly in love with his wife. A respected journalist with the London Times, he wrote articles about whatever war the country might be fighting at the moment.
The empty sleeve of his coat bore testimony to the price he had paid when he was in the cavalry with Reese.
"Good to see you, Rule." Travis glanced around the ballroom, the mirrored walls reflecting images of dozens of elegantly dressed men and women. "So which of these lovely ladies has managed to capture your attention? I heard you ended your…association with the beautiful and intriguing Lady St. Ives."
Rule took a sip of his champagne. "News travels fast."
"I assume you're on the prowl again."
He was indeed on the lookout for a new, more interesting mistress. He had grown tired of Evelyn Dreyer, Viscountess St. Ives, and several weeks back had ended the affair. It wasn't Evie's fault, he knew. For some time now, he had been feeling restless and bored, in search of something but not quite certain what it was.
Travis's gaze shifted away from him and moved around the ballroom. "Or could it be that you are finally on the hunt for a wife?"
The sip of champagne Rule had taken nearly spewed from his mouth. He shook his head. "I'm definitely not looking for a wife. At least not at the moment."
No one in London knew he was married. Not even his family. He would have to tell them, of course, and soon. Should have done it long ago. But telling them would make it real. It would force him to admit it was past time he did his duty, went to Boston and retrieved his wife.
The thought had him excusing himself and heading for the liquor table for something stronger than champagne.
Luke caught up with him there. "The crowd is beginning to thin. How about we head over to the club? Or we could go to Crockfords, do a little gambling." Luke was nearly as tall as Rule, with dark brown hair and keen brown eyes. He had a scar through his right eyebrow that gave him a rakish, dangerous appearance women seemed to find attractive.
"Or if you are up to it, we could stop by Madame Lafon's." Luke grinned lasciviously at the pun, but Rule shook his head.
There was a time the elegant bordello had been one of his favorite ways to spend an evening. Lately, the notion of bedding one of the house's beautiful harlots held little appeal.
"How about Crockfords?" he said. "I've been on a bit of a lucky streak lately. Perhaps it will hold."
Luke smiled. "Crockfords it is."
The one thing Rule wasn't ready to do was go home. If he did, his conscience would nag him. He would think about the money Griff had left him when he died, the profitable investments from his lavish salary and the promise he had made. Though he had kept track of Violet through her aunt, Harriet Ardmore, he hadn't been back to see the girl since the day they were wed.
He had planned to be there when her father died, but Griff had passed with very little warning, leaving Rule no time to make the monthlong crossing from London to Boston. He'd sent a letter to Violet, of course, expressing his condolences, then was careful to write her a short note at least every other month.
But it wasn't the same as assuming his role of husband.
As he made his way out of the ballroom and stepped into the cool night air, he told himself it was time he kept his word. In the next week or two, he vowed, he would book a trip to Boston.
It was past time he went to collect his bride.
Rule ignored the sinking in the pit of his stomach.
Violet stepped off the clipper ship Courageous, grateful to once again be standing on dry land. At last, she was in London. She tightened her hold on the reticule hanging from her wrist and glanced at her surroundings. The docks buzzed with activity: stevedores unloading cargo, passengers disembarking from an endless line of ships along the quay, merchants hawking their wares to a herd of newly arrived, unsuspecting prey.
Gulls screeched overhead, their raucous cries mingled with the clatter and clank of ships' rigging, sounds Violet had grown so accustomed to she barely noticed.
"Isn't this exciting?" Her cousin, Caroline Lockhart, hurried along beside her, next to Mrs. Cummins, a lady of impeccable credentials who had been paid to act as their traveling companion.
"It is quite a bit different than I imagined," Violet said, peering up at the skyline marked by tall church spires and a haphazard array of roofs dotted with chimney pots. "Everything looks older than I thought but that only seems to make it more charming."
Though the area around the docks was certainly not the best. The buildings here were dilapidated and in need of repair, and aside from the travelers, most of the people on the streets were dressed in shabby clothes.
"I'll hire us a carriage," offered Mrs. Cummins, a big-boned, sturdy woman with iron-gray hair. They would be parting company soon, once Violet arrived at the residence belonging to her husband.
Husband. The word left a bad taste in her mouth. She hadn't seen Rule Dewar since their wedding day three years ago.
Oh, he had sent an occasional note but clearly he had no intention of fulfilling his duties to his wife.
And Violet was extremely glad.
She had been so young when she had met him. Young and impressed with his extravagant good looks. And she'd been grieving for the father she would soon have to bury. Griff wanted her to marry and she would have done anything to please him—even wed a man she didn't know.
"All right, girls, here we are." Mrs. Cummins led them toward a ramshackle coach pulled by two tired-looking bay horses. The driver tipped his hat as he jumped down from the box and began hefting their steamer trunks into the boot at the rear of the vehicle.
Mrs. Cummins, very conscientious in her duties, watched the proceedings with a discerning eye. She had taken the job as companion in Aunt Harriet's place since Aunt Harry turned green at the mere thought of four long weeks at sea.
The substitution was fine by Violet, who had been living mostly on her own since her father died. Desperate to fill her days with something more than sadness and grief, she had begun taking an interest in her father's Boston munitions factory.
Growing up, she had spent a great deal of time there, learning about the business of making muskets and pistols, enjoying the hours with her father, playing the role of surrogate son.
"Come, girls," Mrs. Cummins called out to them. "Let us get ourselves inside. This isn't a good place to dawdle."
The coachman held open the door and waited for each of them to climb into the worn leather interior. Violet settled herself in the seat, adjusted her conservative navy-blue traveling gown and tightened the strings of the matching bonnet beneath her chin, but her thoughts remained on her father.
In the beginning, he had been concerned that an interest in business might not be wise for a young lady, but soon it became apparent she was far more excited about making money than she was about playing the role of wealthy, pampered young lady.
Then, six months after Griff had died, Mr. Haskell, head of the Boston branch of the company, had suddenly taken ill and been forced to retire. Aunt Harry had nearly suffered an apoplexy when Violet told her she planned to take over Mr. Haskell's duties, but Violet assured her that she would keep her role completely secret, and eventually her aunt had bent to Violet's very strong will.
Mrs. Cummins's worried voice drew her attention. "Dear me, what has happened to that address?" Her chubby hands dug frantically through her reticule. "I can't seem to find the paper it was written on."
"Number six Portman Square," Violet told her, knowing the address by heart. It was printed at the top of Rule's gold-embossed personal stationery, there on each of the very few letters she had received in the past three years.
Mrs. Cummins rapped on the roof of the carriage. "Driver, did you hear that?"
"Aye, madam. Number six Portman. 'Tis a bit o' a ride, but I'll get ye there safe and sound."
"I hope it doesn't take too long," Caroline said with a weary sigh. "I am beyond ready to take off my shoes and put my feet up for a while." Like Violet, Caroline was also nineteen. The two were alike in other ways, as well. Each was a bit too outspoken and unfashionably wont to do as she pleased, but Violet was better at disguising her nature than Caroline, who didn't much care what other people thought of her.
She glanced outside the window, checking the angle of the sun. The afternoon was waning and all of them were tired. Echoing Caroline's sentiments, Violet could hardly wait to reach their destination.
Her thoughts returned to the man she had wed and a tendril of anger slipped through her. Rule Dewar had the gall to marry her, then completely abandon her. He had given her father his word, had promised that he would provide for her, and though she had plenty of money and servants enough to staff a large part of Boston, it was hardly what her father had intended.
And it certainly wasn't what Violet wanted. She wanted a husband who loved her, a man she could count on. She wanted a family and children. She had played the fool once for Rule Dewar. Not again.
A faint, bitter smile lifted her lips. Rule was about to get his comeuppance. He would retain whatever sum her father had left him, but he was about to lose his half interest in Griffin Manufacturing.
Violet couldn't wait to see the look on his handsome face when she told him she was there to obtain an annulment.
It seemed to take forever, but eventually Violet and her party arrived at Rule's London residence, a narrow, four-story brick structure with a gabled slate roof. It sat among a row of similar residences, all of them situated around a small park planted with bright spring flowers enclosed by an ornate wrought-iron fence. Clearly, it was a very exclusive neighborhood, befitting Rule's station as the brother of a duke.
The thought stirred a trickle of irritation. How ridiculous it was to marry a man for his noble bloodlines. Why, Rule Dewar hadn't even had the integrity to keep his word!
Not like Jeffrey, she thought, his handsome image popping into her head. Blond hair and warm brown eyes, a nice, sincere smile. Jeffrey Burnett was twenty-eight, nine years Violet's senior, a man of some means she had met six months ago at a party given by a friend of Aunt Harriet's. Jeffrey was an attorney who worked a great deal in the shipping business. Since Griffin shipped armaments around the world, they had something in common.
They had become friends of a sort, and eventually Violet had confided the truth of her hasty, ill-considered marriage. A few weeks later, Jeffrey had revealed his very strong attraction to her and his interest in making her his wife.
Of course all of that was moot at the moment.
First she had to obtain an annulment, which would make possible her second reason for coming on such a long journey.
She wanted to sell Griffin Manufacturing.
The driver jumped down and pulled open the carriage door, jarring her back to the present.
"We're 'ere, ladies."
Mrs. Cummins gave the man one of her imperious looks. "You'll need to wait, sir, while I make certain this is the correct address. If so, I shall be needing your services again."
Mrs. Cummins would be leaving Violet and Caroline there, though there was a chance they would be turned away. She had no idea what Rule Dewar would do when she appeared uninvited on his doorstep.
As they reached the top of the brick stairs, Violet stood anxiously next to Caroline while Mrs. Cummins knocked on the ornate front door. A wispy, gray-haired man, apparently the butler, pulled it open. He looked down his long beak of a nose as if he couldn' t imagine what three women would be doing on his employer's front porch.
"May I help you?"
Violet spoke up—she was, after all, Rule's wife. "I am Mrs. Rule Dewar. I am here to see my husband."
The butler was frowning, his bushy white eyebrows drawn nearly together. "I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Then allow me to explain," Mrs. Cummins said, thrusting her big bosom forward as she made her way closer to the door.
"This is Mrs. Dewar. She has crossed the ocean to see her husband. Now please go and find him and tell him that we are here."
The man was shaking his head, opening and closing his mouth like a fish on dry land, when Violet stepped past him into the foyer.
"Where is he?" she asked firmly.
The butler looked helplessly around for assistance as the other two women followed her inside.