All were shocked at the announcement of the “cursed” Lady Claire Cavensham to Lord Alexander Hallworth, the Marquess of Pembrooke, especially since she is already engaged to another unfortunate Lord. Perhaps she will make it to the altar this time with one of these fine gentlemen! —Midnight Cryer
No one is left breathless at the imperious pronouncement of her engagement to Lord Pembrooke more than Claire. She hardly knows the dangerously outrageous man! But after three engagements gone awry and a fourth going up in glorious flames, she isn’t in a position to refuse...
Alexander requires the hand of his enemy’s fiancée in marriage in order to complete his plans for revenge. It’s his good fortune that the “cursed” woman is desperate. However, what begins as a sham turns into something scandalously deeper...
“Full-bodied romance...with intelligence and heart."—Cathy Maxwell
"Captivating characters and a romance that sizzles."—Eloisa James
"Will leave you swooning."—Sabrina Jeffries
The Bad Luck Bride is the first in a new Regency romance series from Janna MacGregor!
About the Author
Janna MacGregor was born and raised in the bootheel of Missouri. She is the author of the Cavensham Heiresses series, which begins with The Bad Luck Bride.
Janna credits her darling mom for introducing her to the happily-ever-after world of romance novels. Janna writes stories where compelling and powerful heroines meet and fall in love with their equally matched heroes. She is the mother of triplets and lives in Kansas City with her very own dashing rogue, and two smug, but not surprisingly, perfect pugs. She loves to hear from readers.
Read an Excerpt
The Bad Luck Bride
By Janna MacGregor
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 JLWR, LLC
All rights reserved.
January 1811 Dorchester
The raw wind pounded every inch of Alexander's body and lashed at what little remained of his compassion. As Marquess of Pembrooke, Alex had fought for years to cultivate the fine art of patience. Today proved that to have been a waste of time.
He should have ignored the lessons of forbearance and studied the intricacies of inflicting vengeance. Never again would he take for granted the epithet of "friend" — not when friend meant betrayer. The barren, snow-packed field was a perfect stage for a duel. Mere feet separated him from Lord Paul Barstowe, the man who had destroyed his family.
Alex's bay stallion edged closer to Lord Paul's white gelding. From this distance, the weather-roughened face of Lord Paul, the second son of the Duke of Southart, failed to mar Alex's childhood memories. In their youth they'd been inseparable. They'd witnessed each other's milestones. They'd celebrated each other's successes and suffered through the failures. Their friendship should have lasted until their deaths. Instead, it died instantly when Alex found his sister's letter explaining her suicide.
"Alice is dead." The bay stomped and blew out a breath of steam. By rote, Alex stilled the beast with a soft pat. Nothing good would come from delay. His eyes burned. The north wind's fury strengthened, but he refused to turn away. "I buried her two days ago."
Lord Paul tilted his head and flexed his gloved fingers. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Alex attributed the numbness that had invaded his body to grief and the weeklong bitter cold. He pushed the misery aside and subdued the anger that nipped at his sanity. Even if his pursuit of justice caused his own blood to stain the snow, the sacrifice would bring some peace. Bile took refuge in his throat. He dismissed it with a hard swallow.
Alice Aubrey Hallworth, his youngest sister, lay in the Pembrooke family crypt. A week ago, she'd laughed and charmed the entire family at dinner. When they'd finished the evening meal, she had excused herself, then taken a tonic before bed.
She never woke.
Now, there was nothing left but Lord Paul. How one so dissolute could ruin one so young was a question Alex would never understand. He drew a gulp of air in a desperate attempt to keep his pain buried deep inside.
Alex tightened the reins. "She was carrying your child."
In the distance, a disturbance arose, upsetting the desolate, snow-encrusted field. From the west, a man upon a black horse raced across the icy stretch of open land. Time was of the essence. Lord Paul had to agree to the duel before Nicholas St. Mauer, the Earl of Somerton, arrived. It had been a mistake to tell Somerton his plan.
"How do you know the child was mine?" Lord Paul's voice rose in defiance.
"She left a note and told me not to blame you. But now, all those times I encountered you both together during the fall hunting party and the holidays —" The words and memories made Alex physically sick; the nausea churned in his belly. "She was happy. I thought it all above suspicion."
Alex waited for Lord Paul to show some remorse, even if only to ask if Alice had suffered. As the silence lengthened, the weight of the two flintlock pistols in his pockets offered the only comfort he'd accept this day.
By this time, Somerton had closed the distance by half. Clouds of snow rose from the ground, the peace disrupted by the horse's churning hooves.
"How unfortunate for all." Lord Paul squinted toward the rider.
"Indeed." Alex leaned forward as his entire body tensed. He fought the desire to reach inside his jacket for one of the pistols. Instead, he coaxed his horse to stand within inches of Lord Paul's white gelding. "Do me the simple courtesy of looking at me."
Lord Paul made no move in his direction.
The unrelenting need to hear the man's betrayal and remorse firsthand spurred Alex to continue. "How could you seduce Alice, then abandon her like a piece of refuse on the street? How could you leave her with child?"
"I don't suppose telling you I had nothing to do with it will change our situation." Lord Paul finally looked at Alex. "She pursued me —"
"Damn you." Alex's voice rang out like a shot across the empty field. "Why didn't you stay with her? You should have done the honorable thing and married her."
As the last words faded, Lord Paul's face paled. "Careful, Pembrooke. Don't rush to a judgment you'll regret."
"We'll settle it, here and now." Before Alex uttered the rest of the challenge, the Earl of Somerton arrived on horseback and came to an abrupt stop.
Lord Paul held his hand away from his face to block the swirl of snow that engulfed him at the arrival of the earl.
Somerton brought his mount forward to separate the two men and their horses. The earl's jaw clenched, and his eyes narrowed. "Pembrooke, enough!"
"Dashing entrance, Somerton." Lord Paul's smile was pure provocation. "Come to save him? Too late. Your friend is well on his way to hell in a handcart."
"You'd best leave." Somerton's voice thickened with emotion. "Now."
Alex refused to acknowledge the interruption. Lord Paul was his sole concern. "You will pay for your treachery tonight." He cared nothing about facing a trial in the House of Lords for killing the man in a duel of honor.
Somerton blocked Alex's view and reached for the horse's bridle. "Pembrooke." The timbre of his friend's voice turned mellow and even, as if trying to tame a wild animal. "Alex, come on, old man."
Whatever he had done in the past to deserve Somerton's loyalty was a curse today. In one tug of the reins, Alex coaxed the horse away from the earl's grasp. "No. I will finish this one way or the other." Resolved to deliver a day of reckoning for Lord Paul's deception, he turned to face him. "We don't need the luxury of surgeons or seconds."
Somerton moved his horse forward and demanded, "Lord Paul, leave." The snowfall stopped as if on command as the earl raised his hand to slap the hindquarters of the white gelding.
"Somerton, stay out of this!" Alex's outcry caused a flutter of movement in the nearby trees as several birds fled.
Before the earl dropped his hand, the horse bolted. Lord Paul fled into the nearby woods and the oncoming night.
Alex reached with his right hand and grasped the handle of a pistol. As he pulled the heavy weight from his pocket, his conscience made a spontaneous and regrettable appearance. He bit off an oath, then slowly released his hold.
The fallen snow had deadened every sound except the subtle creaking of Somerton's leather saddle as he shifted his weight. Alex's grief, still raw, scored his every breath, his every thought, his every hope of future happiness.
He would not live this way. He'd find another way to force Lord Paul to atone for his sins. Memories of Alice, once bright and clear, were now stained a dirty umber.
Sleet replaced the snow. Raising his face to the gray sky, Alex embraced the razor-sharp pelt of ice against his skin. When he became accustomed to the stinging pain, he broke the silence in a steady voice. "I will take everything from him. I do not care the cost or sacrifice. Everything he holds dear will be mine."CHAPTER 2
April 1812 London — The Reynolds Gambling Establishment
Lord Paul repeatedly slapped his gloves in the palm of his hand. Again. And again. The movement reminded Alex of an angry cat twitching its tail when treed by a persistent hound.
"You bought my vowels?" Lord Paul's face darkened with disbelief.
Alex raised an eyebrow and lifted the corners of his mouth, though there was no humor in the moment. "No need to thank me."
Lord Paul narrowed his ice-blue eyes. "When hell freezes or there are thirty Thursdays in February. Whichever occurs first."
Alex ignored the sarcasm and withdrew a piece of paper from his coat pocket. "I agree to pay all your gambling debts, including the ones from today. In exchange, you give me the deed to your Dorchester property, Willow House." He lowered his voice and handed the single sheet of paper to his nemesis. "Also, you will sign this."
Lord Paul snatched the paper from his hand. He didn't spare a glance at the entrance of Alex's two solicitors.
The suffocating weight lifted from Alex's chest. Tonight, after months of devising the proper punishment, he could breathe freely again. His honor had dictated such satisfaction. Alice and her baby were dead, and nothing would bring them back, but the retribution he delivered would alleviate Lord Paul's betrayal.
Alex forced himself to appear calm, but his fist itched to take a swing at the swine in front of him. "Sign the note, and we're through. You're safe from your creditors, and this outrageous circus you created."
Lord Paul finished reading and looked up with a start. "You bloody bastard! If I give up Lady Claire, I won't be able to pay my debts. I'm as much as ruined."
"She's not your responsibility anymore." If he had it within his power, no woman would be Lord Paul's concern ever again.
Lord Paul's angry demeanor slipped when a brief hint of panic widened his eyes. With a blink it was gone, but Alex knew he'd scored a deep blow. "You ruin me, you'll destroy Lady Claire, too. She can't afford the scandal of another broken engagement. Besides, she's a lovelorn calf. Can't keep away from me. Of course, I oblige her."
"What are you suggesting?" Alex leaned across the green felt gaming table. It took every ounce of self-control not to kill the miscreant before him. The thought that Lord Paul had ruined another innocent made his gut turn. "Careful of your answer. If the Duke of Langham heard —"
"Don't be tedious. Of course I've had her." Lord Paul's face twisted into a smirk. "You can force me to sign it, but what good will it do? If need be, I'll marry her by special license tomorrow. The chit would be ecstatic and think it romantic."
"If you make the attempt, I'll know. Any foolish move on your part, I'll sell you back to your creditors. A rather nasty lot prone to violence, I hear." Alex mimicked Lord Paul's tic by popping his own gloves into his palm. The sound echoed through the room like a whip against bare skin.
With a hatred unmasked for all to witness, Lord Paul glared at Alex. Both knew there was no other recourse. With minimum movement, he dipped the quill into the inkwell and signed the note.
As casually as possible, Alex took possession of the paper and sprinkled sand over the signature.
Lord Paul leaned close. "I didn't realize I was worth this much to you."
"You aren't, but Alice was." Alex drew a breath for patience and summoned every speck of poise he'd collected over his lifetime. "You should have played deeper. I'd have paid much more."
He threw the black greatcoat over his shoulders and walked to the door with the paper in hand. With each step, part of the burden fell further away. Yet his own remorse lingered and weighed heavy on his conscience. He should have taken greater care with Alice. Too engaged in the daily management of his estate, he had missed numerous opportunities to spend time with her. What had she hoped for her future? Had she looked forward to her debut in society? Now, he'd never know. He should have seen Alice's humor and good cheer were nothing more than masks to hide her pain.
He took one last look at Lord Paul. The bastard would soon realize the extent to which he was ruined. "It was fortuitous I didn't kill you, as that would have been too easy. I'd much rather see you suffer as Alice did." He breathed in the stale remnants of cheroots, cheap spirits, and Lord Paul's desperation. The combination was a heady scent, one he'd remember until his dying day. For the first time since he'd discovered Alice dead, he felt alive.
His solicitors would expound every excruciating clause in detail, but Alex could explain it in far easier terms. He had crushed Lord Paul. To put the final nail in the coffin, he would attend this evening's ball, where he would ask for Lady Claire's hand.
She would need him when her engagement to Lord Paul ended.
With little success, Alex tried to quash the truth that forced its way into his thoughts. He needed her as much as, if not more than, she needed him.
There was only one problem. He needed to persuade her to ruin herself and jilt her fourth fiancé.
* * *
Alex was actually looking forward to Lady Anthony's ball. Normally these functions were a bore, akin to a fatal, gut-churning plague, but not tonight's event. He was eager to dance and converse with Lady Claire, the woman he would convince to marry him. He studied the perimeter of the dance floor from the second-floor balcony. The dance crowd slowed to a stop. The graceful sway of the ladies' dresses didn't hold his interest. Only one woman commanded his attention tonight.
He would recognize that radiant crown of dark red anywhere. Lady Claire's hair was a beacon, guiding his gaze. The last time they had met, she had been a tall, gawky girl who had reminded him of a skittish filly. A rare frisson of excitement caught him by surprise. She was no longer such a creature burgeoning into adulthood, but a lovely woman.
Lady Claire Cavensham, the only child of the late Duke of Langham, laughed with a group of young women. From the corner of the ballroom, a liveried footman walked in her direction with a note, the claret color of the Barstowe family stationery recognizable even from the second floor.
The horror of the moment pummeled him as hard as a direct punch. "The bastard," Alex said under his breath. The insipid arse hadn't possessed the decency to see her in person.
The footman moved closer to Lady Claire, and time slowed to a crawl. The scene below unfolded like the few seconds before a carriage accident. A person saw the wreck coming but lacked the ability to stop the damage.
Regret bled into his musings. She was hardly at fault. With haste, he made his way downstairs in an attempt to lessen the damage. With a bit of luck, he could intercept the footman before he delivered the note.
Alex dodged several guests as he made his way to Lady Claire. It would be inexcusable to run through the throng of attendees, but that didn't stop him from ignoring several greetings from friends as he passed. Only twenty feet separated him from saving her.
"Pembrooke! What the hell are you doing here?" A euphoric Lord Fredrick Honeycutt blocked Alex's path. "I haven't seen you in ages. Are you headed to the card room?"
"Not now, Honeycutt. I'll find you later." With a brief nod, Alex sidestepped the man and continued toward Lady Claire.
The footman extended the silver salver containing the missive. She pursed her brow before her eyes grew wide. She must have recognized the color of the stationery. In a barely perceivable instant, she masked her concern. With a slight smile, she nodded and took the note.
Alex's gut slammed to the floor as she stepped away from her friends and with a flick of her finger broke the seal.
* * *
Bloody hell. Claire wanted to scream the words aloud as she crushed the note in her hand. The thick paper's sharp edges, a painful reminder of its contents, gouged her palms through her cream-colored satin gloves.
She held the note from her fourth fiancé. Short, terse, and in an annoyingly elegant hand, Lord Paul informed her that he would not be attending their engagement announcement. The words were nothing more than a release from another promise of everlasting matrimony.
True, she did not love Lord Paul, but she had thought of him as a friend. Perhaps, over time, a friend she could have learned to love. There was no denying what had happened tonight.
The hateful curse had struck again.
One more sorry rejection she could add to her collection. Dazed, Claire bowed her head in shame, her glance skimming the beautiful engagement dress, a confection designed and carefully crafted to celebrate tonight's betrothal announcement. Within the hour, she had planned to dance with Lord Paul in front of the guests, her gown sweeping the curse out of the ballroom and out of her life. Now, all she had in her future was the humiliation that waited for her once the ton heard she had suffered yet another broken betrothal. Only this time, the ton would have a front-row seat.
All she'd ever wanted was a family of her own. To have a family, she had to marry. Truthfully, she wasn't particular whom she married — just determined.
She blinked to make certain she wasn't dreaming. "Ruined" did not express the calamity of the evening. The term might have explained her situation two fiancés ago, but "destroyed" was a more apt description of the night. She dreaded the inevitable snorts and snickers from onlookers when they pounced upon the discovery that her fourth fiancé had taken the much heeded advice and jilted her a mere hour before the announcement.
Excerpted from The Bad Luck Bride by Janna MacGregor. Copyright © 2017 JLWR, LLC. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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