Once the toast of society, Grace Cabot and her sisters now await the shame of losing high status and fine luxuries upon the death of the Earl of Beckington. The dire circumstances are inevitable unless, of course, Grace’s wicked plot to seduce a wealthy viscount into marriage goes off without a single hitch. But once a stolen embrace with the wrong man leads her to be discovered in the arms of Jeffrey, the Earl of Merryton, her plan takes a most unexpected—and scorching—twist.
Governed by routine and ruled by duty, Jeffrey had no desire for a wife before he succumbed to Grace’s temptation. Though his golden-haired, in-name-only bride is the definition of disorder, he can’t resist wanting her in every way. But once her secrets meet his, society might consider their lives to be ruined beyond repair…while Jeffrey might just see it as a new beginning.
Originally published in 2015
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The Devil Takes a Bride
By Julia London
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All rights reserved.
Spring of 1812
The Franklin sisters of Bath, England—one a widow, the other a spinster—presided over a small tea shop on the square near the baths and the abbey. It was their pleasure to serve tea and fresh-baked pastries to the denizens and visitors to their fair town. They knew most everyone by name. They lived above their shop and were open every day, without fail.
The sisters reasoned that, being as close to the abbey as they were, they might offer up their daily prayers in a more official manner than in their rooms, and every evening, at precisely six o'clock, they closed their shop. Those who resided near the abbey knew that they were so exact and so regular that even the abbey's grounds-keeper had noticed and had quite literally set the abbey clocks by them.
Once their daily prayers were offered, the sisters returned to their shop, lit a pair of candles and shared tea or soup and nattered on about their day. On certain special occasions, such as those evenings when a chorale was sung in the abbey, Reverend Cumberhill accompanied them back to the shop, and a bit of brandy was poured into the tea.
Grace Cabot was depending on the sisters' routine. A routine she was confident went undetected by most of the fashionable people in Bath, as the fashionable people in Bath were not in the habit of attending evening prayer. She knew this because she was one of that set that spring, and she was in the habit of attending one soiree after the next along with the rest of them.
Had it not been for a chance call to her old friend Diana Mortimer, who lived near the abbey, Grace wouldn't have known about the sisters' routine. But she had made that call, and Diana had remarked upon it.
Diana Mortimer was also the one to tell her about the famed Russian soprano's upcoming performance at the abbey. "The Prince of Wales has favored her," Diana said. "And you know very well that if the prince has favored her, there won't be an empty seat."
That was the moment Grace hit upon the perfect plan to lure Lord Amherst into her trap.
She risked everything to set her plan in motion on the night the Russian soprano sang. It all hinged on the Franklin sisters arriving at the precise and most inopportune moment.
Grace did not think she was the sort to be annoyingly proud of her accomplishments, but this meeting with Lord Amherst, on this night, had taken exceptional cunning to arrange. She'd come to Bath a month ago after hearing his lordship had come for the waters, for the sole purpose of convincing him that she was quite sincere in her esteem of him, without appearing too wanton. But Grace had made her social debut at the age of eighteen, and in the three years hence, she'd learned her lessons in the finest salons of London and knew a thing or two about how to entice a gentleman, especially one like Amherst.
And yet, Amherst had surprised her. In spite of his reputation for being a randy and rambunctious rake, in spite of declaring his esteem for her more than once, he'd not been persuaded that a private meeting with Grace was the thing to do.
Grace had not anticipated his reluctance when she'd devised her plan. On every occasion they'd met in London, Amherst had been attentive—one might even say eager—to please and charm her. He was forthright about his esteem for her, and Grace had been certain his affection would lend itself to a clandestine meeting. Indeed, when Grace had arrived in Bath, and made the necessary rounds to the necessary parlors, Lord Am-herst had not been the least reluctant to whisper in her ear during the Wickers' soiree. Nor had he been reluctant to walk with her in the park near the Royal Crescent or keep his hands from her as they strolled.
But he'd absolutely refused to meet her in private when she'd first suggested it.
She had wondered if he had suspected her and her motives, but quickly dismissed that notion—she'd been too clever in her deceit. Having three sisters and a stepbrother had taught her how to connive. Then perhaps she'd not been conniving enough, and in the privacy of the room she'd taken in the home of her mother's dear friend Cousin Beatrice she'd thought hard about what she must do.
One night, it came to her—no one could resist a secret. Not even Amherst. She'd told him that she had something very important to tell him, something that no one else could hear. And Grace had been right— Amherst couldn't resist and had agreed to meet her.
One might assume that Grace wanted to seduce Amherst for her own pleasure, but nothing could be further from the truth. This scheme had become necessary because her stepfather, the Earl of Beckington, had recently died. Grace, her mother, Lady Beckington, and her sisters Honor, Prudence and Mercy had been completely dependent on the earl. Completely. Now, her stepbrother, Augustine, was the new earl, and every day that passed with her mother under Augustine's roof was a day that her mother's terrible secret could be discovered: Lady Beckington was going mad.
That secret would ruin the Cabot sisters, for if it were known among the ton that Lady Beckington was mad, and her four unmarried daughters now had modest dowries instead of generous ones, no one would have them. No one. There wasn't a gentleman in London who would chance introducing madness into his family's lineage, especially without the incentive of grand wealth. More important, Grace had two younger sisters who were not yet out. They would have no opportunity to make a good match.
She and Honor had worried over it for weeks now, and while Grace didn't like that it had come to this, that she should find herself in a position of having to conspire to something so morally reprehensible, she could see no other viable or expeditious solution. She must marry Amherst before her secrets were discovered.
Everything was set. The little tea shop across the square from the abbey was closed at six o'clock. There was quite a crowd gathered at the abbey this evening to hear the Russian soprano. Grace knew the Franklin sisters would return after the chorale with Reverend Cumberhill. She'd even stood across from the tea shop, watching when the Franklin sisters departed for the abbey at six o'clock, then testing the door herself. It was open. It was always open—the abbey was only steps from the shop.
Tonight, Grace's life would change forevermore. She would suffer a great scandal, would no doubt be made a pariah among polite society. She was prepared for it—at least her younger sisters would have what they needed.
At the chorale, she caught Amherst's twinkling eye. Just as they'd planned, she stood and walked briskly from the abbey's sanctuary before the chorale was ended. She knew that Amherst would be right behind her, unsuspecting that the Franklin sisters and the reverend would be right behind him.
A light rain had begun to fall, and that worried Grace. A few moments too early, a few moments too late, and everything would be ruined. She pulled the hood of her cape over her head and hurried across the abbey courtyard to the tea shop. She had a moment of breathlessness at the realization she was actually stooping to such wretched manipulations—up until this moment, it had been nothing but a scheme—but that was followed by an exhalation of desperation. She had never in her life been so desperate as this.
At the door of the tea shop, she pushed her hood back to look around her before she opened the door. There was no one about—everyone was in the abbey, hearing the last stanzas of the chorale.
Grace reached for the handle and pushed. She knew a moment of panic when the door would not open—but she put her shoulder to it and it opened with a creak so loud she expected the entire town of Bath to spill out of their doors and accuse her of thievery. Grace slipped inside, leaving the door slightly ajar so that Amherst would know it was open, and paused, listening for any sounds that would indicate she'd been seen.
She couldn't hear a thing over the pounding of her heart.
The room was very dark; the embers at the hearth were so low she could hardly see her hand before her. Another bolt of panic hit her—she hadn't thought of the dark. How would Amherst find her? She was too fearful to speak. She'd stand near the door; she'd reach out and touch him when he entered.
Grace began to feel about for the furnishings. She'd been in this tiny tearoom many times, and knew there were two small tables just at the door, a desk to her right. With her hands sweeping slowly in front of her, she brushed against the back of the chair at the desk.
All right, then, she had her bearings. She knew where she was standing, where the door was.
Grace removed her cloak and dropped it somewhere nearby, then nervously smoothed her hair. Her hands were shaking; she clasped them tightly together, waiting. A clock was ticking somewhere, and every second that ticked by, her heart beat harder.
She heard the footfall of Amherst as he strode across the abbey courtyard. He was walking quickly, purposefully, and suddenly Grace's breath deserted her entirely. She gulped for air, straining to hear. She heard Amherst pause just outside the door and swallowed down a small cry of tension. It sounded as if he was moving about, and Grace imagined Amherst was having second thoughts. He moved away from the door, and she gasped softly.
But he came back almost at once.
A silence followed, and Grace could not quell the shaking in her. Why did he not open the door? When he did, pushing the door so that it swung open, a rush of cool damp air swept across Grace's face. Her breath was so shallow she felt faint; her hands were so tightly clasped that she was vaguely aware of her fingernails digging into her skin.
Amherst stepped cautiously over the threshold. He looked taller than he normally seemed, which Grace attributed to the bit of light outside that framed him in the doorway. He turned his head to one side, as if he were listening for her.
Her nerves would strangle her. "Here," she said.
His head snapped around to the sound she'd made, and in a moment of sheer panic, Grace launched her body at him. She expected him to say something, but he froze, as if she had startled him. She threw her arms around his neck; he caught her by the waist with a soft grunt, and stumbled backward to keep them from falling. Somehow, Grace found his mouth in the dark. It was much softer than she would have thought. It was lush, wet and warm, and—
And he was suddenly devouring her lips. Hungrily. Grace hadn't expected such a powerful kiss. She couldn't say what exactly she'd expected, but it wasn't this. Her blood felt hot in her veins, sluicing through her. She was a pot boiling over, and she liked it. His tongue swept into her mouth, and she was rocked by the prurient sensation of it. She felt strangely free and anonymous in the dark, not like herself at all. Not a debutante with at least some sense of propriety. His kiss was stunningly arousing, and Grace pressed against him without regard for herself or her reputation, feeling the hard length of him—
He suddenly picked her up by the waist, and Grace cried out with surprise against his mouth. He knocked into the chair at the desk, and she heard it crash to the planked floor. He sat her on the desk, and something there dug into her back, but Grace didn't care—his tongue was stroking her mouth and driving her wild. He nipped at her lips with his teeth, drew them into his mouth, and Grace realized now exactly how Amherst had derived the reputation for being something of a rake, for his kiss was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her.
She was sliding down a very sensual path. She felt too damp, too hot in her clothes, pushed to the edge of reason by every stroke of his tongue in her mouth, every bite of her lips.
He suddenly moved, and his mouth was on her decol-letage, his fingers digging into the fabric of her gown. Grace thought she should stop him before this game went too far, but his hand had found her leg, was under her gown! And his fingers were tracing a burning path up her leg.
Stop him, stop him now! She wanted to be discovered in a fierce embrace, not in the full throes of lovemaking. Where were the Franklin sisters, for God's sake? Grace couldn't find her voice—rather, she didn't want to find her voice. She much preferred to close her eyes and feel the extraordinary sensations. She dropped her head back and allowed herself to experience every moment of this carnal onslaught. His fingers dug into the meaty part of her thigh, and she gasped with the tantalizing sensation of a man's hand between her legs. She sank her fingers into his hair as his lips closed around the hard tip of her breast through her gown. She could not believe she had accomplished it! She would be happy with him, if this is what she might look forward to.
He freed her breast with a yank to the fabric of her gown. He took it in his mouth, suckling it, and the sensation was so shocking, so arousing, that it pooled in her groin.
Amherst growled against her breast, a guttural, animal sound of desire, and Grace's body reverberated with it. When his hand moved deeper between her thighs, Grace brazenly lifted her leg. His fingers slipped into the folds of her sex. She gasped for breath, lifting off the desk. She hardly knew herself!
"I wasn't sure you'd come," she whispered into his ear.
His hesitation was so slight she wasn't sure it was real. But he said nothing as he moved to her other breast and pressed an erection against her that both alarmed and incited her. She'd never felt a man's desire, had never seen it. It felt mysterious and hard against her leg, and the lusty image of how it would fit inside her filled her head as a strong current of desire skated down her spine, overwhelming her senses, tingling in every patch of her skin.
Everything began to fall away. Grace forgot her deceit, or even where she was. She forgot everything but the way he was making her feel, the way her body was responding, wanting more, craving more. So when a lantern of light suddenly filled the room, she was startled and cried out.
Amherst whirled about, spreading his cloak to cover Grace while she desperately sought to cover herself.
"My lord!" Reverend Cumberhill cried, his voice full of censure and alarm. "God in heaven, what have you done?"
Grace frantically tried to remember her part in this theater. "Please," she said. Please what? She looked down and realized that Amherst had actually torn the bodice of her gown. She held the fabric together with her hand, and cast frantically about for her cloak.
"My lord, this cannot stand!" the reverend cried. "You have taken cruel advantage of this girl!"
"Young lady, are you harmed?" one of the sisters demanded, and suddenly light was shining on Grace. She heard the Franklin sisters' twin cries of shock at her appearance. Grace spotted her cloak and dipped down for it.
"Miss Cabot!" one of them cried. "Come, darling, let me help you," she said, and Grace felt her hands on her shoulders, felt her pulling the cloak around her neck.
"By God, Merryton, I never thought you capable of rape! I will call the authorities!"
Excerpted from The Devil Takes a Bride by Julia London. Copyright © 2014 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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