The Madcap Marriage
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May 20, 1814
Helen St. James awoke to cold, dank stone under her cheek and people murmuring off to her right. Where was she?
"--never saw ... lengthy swoon." The voice belonged to a stranger.
A pounding head and overwhelming sense of danger kept her motionless. She was clearly indoors, though she dared not open her eyes to find out where. Instead, she sniffed--delicately.
Mustiness blended with the scent of wax candles. And something more--wine, perhaps? The combination was odd. Wine and stone might indicate a cellar, though cellars were usually lit by tallow lanterns. Yet even Audley's disused Tudor wing smelled fresher than this.
A second voice penetrated her fog. "--carriage sickness ... nothing since breakfast ... excitement too much..."
Her uncle, Sir Steven St. James.
Fear lashed her brain. Fury followed, burning away the fog. Steven was dangerous, and more cunning than she had expected. He'd tricked her by--
"I've seen many a bride swoon, but none who remained insensible for so long," insisted the first man. "I won't be a party to a deathbed marriage. Your man assu--"
Marriage. This must be that church on the edge of London. Her last memory was of Steven ordering the coachman to stop. How long had she been unconscious?
Steven's hearty tone cut across the vicar's words. "It is merely weariness. The lovebirds are so eager to wed, they refused to postpone the ceremony a minute longer."
A snicker rippled from her left. Steven's son, Dudley. She was surrounded.
Helen barely controlled a shudder. Dudley made her skin crawl. Not because of his pockmarked cheeks and scarred forehead--or even his limp. She blamedno one for the ravages of time. It was the gleam in his eyes that she loathed, and his rapacious hands, his quick temper, his disregard for anyone weaker...
The whisper of a silk skirt approached, accompanied by a cloud of cloying perfume that obliterated all other odors. Here was yet another enemy--Maude Cunningham, who doused herself in chypre several times a day. Now exposed as Steven's mistress, she had served as Helen's maid since the day Steven turned off Tessa.
Helen stifled another burst of fury. Why had it taken her so long to realize that Maude was Steven's spy? If she'd paid attention, she might have escaped their clutches.
If only she hadn't been distracted!
Fate had played her a cruel trick, striking her mother with apoplexy at her father's deathbed and throwing the household into chaos. Steven had taken advantage of her inattention to insinuate himself into Audley Court--in flagrant disregard of his brother's will--by convincing her trustees to appoint him as overseer. By the time Lady St. James had died, Sir Steven ruled both house and estate, making Helen a prisoner in her own home, denied callers and forbidden to write letters.
She had still been reeling from that shock when Dudley arrived bearing a special license. Only her vicar's refusal to read services for an unwilling bride had saved her. But this vicar wasn't an ally. Sir Steven would not have stopped here unless a hefty bribe had convinced the man to ignore her objections.
"Wake her, Maude. She must have fallen asleep." Steven's irritation boded ill.
Helen concentrated on remaining limp--Maude loved to kick. Until she could escape, she had to stay unconscious.
She had known that accompanying Steven to London posed risks--he never acted without a reason--but she hadn't expected him to spring his trap so quickly. Underestimating him could cost her everything. Her own plan had been to slip out after dark and find her guardian, Lord Alquist. But they'd stopped before reaching Mayfair. When she'd tried to flee, Steven had bashed her on the head.
A pitcher of cold water suddenly drenched her face and gown. Yelping, she surged to her feet, then cursed. Doom was at hand.
"Excellent," said Steven. "I knew you were eager to conclude the formalities."
Dudley laughed, reaching for her arm.
Shaking off water let her evade Dudley. Her eyes darted about, seeking an exit. But the church was larger than it had appeared from the carriage window. Its nave could easily hold five hundred, so flight was out of the question. As wobbly as she was, even Dudley could catch her before she reached the door. And there were more people to give chase than she'd thought. Steven's secretary and Dudley's valet stood to one side, blocking another avenue of escape.
Fighting was also useless. She could never defeat five opponents.
That left guile. Steven's one weakness was contempt for female intelligence.
She staggered, then clamped a hand over her mouth. "I'm going to be sick!"
Maude and Dudley recoiled. Steven froze.
Helen met the vicar's gaze, then stumbled toward the oversized chalice atop the nearby altar.
As she'd hoped, he didn't want her using his chalice as a basin. Grabbing her arm, he hustled her along the transept and shoved her into his study.
Helen locked the heavy wooden door as her eyes frantically scanned the room. His desk held the parish register, open and ready to sign. A basin atop the low bookcase explained why he'd dragged her here. Her gaze skimmed past it, coming to rest on an open window.
Hiking her skirts to her hips, she wiggled through the narrow casement, then nearly yelped when she landed in a rosebush. Thorns slashed her legs and gown as she struggled free. Other roses covered the walls enclosing this tiny garden. For one terrible moment she feared she must climb them....
A rusty gate was tucked into the corner. Exhaling in relief, she sprinted for freedom. London might be dangerous for a woman alone, but anything was better than Dudley.
"How dare you ignore my summons for four days?" thundered Lord Hillcrest, his face purpling as he pounded on his desk.
"I wasn't at home to receive it." Rafael Thomas glared at his father. "I was attending Alquist's funeral--as you should have been," he added deliberately. "You should at least have sent condolences to his widow."
"Why? She schemed against me for years, undermining my authority, turning my family against me...."
Rafe let the diatribe flow past him. If he withdrew deep enough into his mind, the words made no impact. Hillcrest's complaints never varied. Even the few that contained a grain of truth were pointless.
As he settled into a chair, Rafe wondered what the man wanted this time. They had been at odds for twenty-eight years. Hillcrest made impossible demands. Rafe ignored them. The pattern was too established to change, though a thread of hope wished otherwise.
"Pull your mind out of Lady Willingham's bed and pay attention," snapped Hillcrest, slamming a book down with a crack like thunder.
Rafe opened his mouth--Lady Willingham's obvious availability didn't interest him--but Hillcrest gave him no chance to speak. "You've sowed more than enough oats, boy. It is past time for you and Alice to set up your nursery."
Rafe rolled his eyes. For ten years Hillcrest had demanded that he wed Alice Pauling, but Rafe refused. Aside from disliking Alice on her own account, her dowry included the estate adjacent to Hillcrest Manor. Never would he consider living so near. Constant battles would destroy his sanity.
He much preferred London. Gossips might cluck their tongues over his latest conquest and shake their heads at past foibles, but the liveliest courtesans and most passionate matrons vied for his favors. Society hostesses kept him at the top of their lists, for his wit enlivened any gathering. Reformists courted his support against the day he would assume a seat in Parliament.
Marriage could wait until raking lost its charm--another five years, or maybe ten. But Alice Pauling would never be on his list of potential brides. His wife must share his interests and satisfy his libido, for he had vowed fidelity after marriage. She should respect his decisions and defer to his desires. And she must have a limited dowry--preferably no dowry at all.
Steadying his temper, he met Hillcrest's flinty eyes. "I will not wed Alice. I've refused this match for ten years. Nothing has changed."
"Of course you are marrying Alice." Hillcrest shook his balding head. "Pauling and I agreed to the match when Alice was born. You cannot jilt her. She loves you."
"I cannot jilt someone I never offered for," he snapped. "Forget this insanity. I won't wed the chit. She's timid, insipid, and hasn't two thoughts to rub together." Rising, he headed for the door. "I have plans for the evening, so if you will excuse--"
"Sit down!" Exploding from behind the desk, Hillcrest shoved Rafe into a chair.
Rafe stared at his fists while he fought to rein in his temper. This was turning into the worst confrontation yet.
The library had always been dismal, its austerity reflecting Hillcrest's character. But the ghosts of past confrontations made it worse. Here a young Rafe had endured unearned lectures and petty punishments. Here he had repudiated Alice again and again. Here he had declared independence by throwing his allowance in Hillcrest's face.
"I am appalled to claim you as my son," snarled Hillcrest, punctuating the words with his hands. "You are the worst excuse for a gentleman society has ever seen! A debauched, drunken gamester without an ounce of intelligence, a dissipated wastrel who has long since sacrificed honor on the altar of hedonistic impulse. Thank God your mother is gone. She would have wept to see what you have become."
"Don't drag Mother into this!" Rafe surged to his feet, removing Hillcrest's height advantage. He had learned long ago that arguing merely prolonged these meetings, but he could not sit silent while Hillcrest maligned his mother. "She protested this match from the moment you suggested it. Were she here, she would protest even more. She despised arranged marriages--and with good reason. Hers made her miserable!"
"Lies! You misunderstood everything about her. Her only reservation concerned Lady Pauling's weak constitution, so she counseled patience until we discovered whether Alice might share it. She would agree that you need a calm, sober wife to counter your wild ways. Your name has become a byword. Newspapers bulge with your scandals. Everywhere I go, men condemn your public drunkenness and reckless gaming. How many women have you seduced?"
"That is none of your business," Rafe snapped, though in truth he hadn't seduced anyone in years. He didn't have to.
"You are my business."
"No." It was time to stop caring that harsh words might alienate Hillcrest for all time. His hope for reconciliation was a fantasy. "I came of age seven years ago and answer to no one, especially a fool. You are worse than the most irresponsible gossip, accepting baseless speculation and wild exaggeration as truth because you are too stupid to know who to believe and too lazy to investigate for yourself." He kept his tone icy, though his knees shook and curses ricocheted through his head. Hillcrest was so sure of his own judgment that he refused to listen to evidence in Rafe's favor--as Rafe knew all too well.
"Exaggeration?" demanded Hillcrest, shaking his fist. "I can read, boy. As can society. The papers are full of your exploits."
"Most of them false."
"Enough, Rafe. Pauling will forgive you once you settle down--"
"I would never ask him to lower his standards so far." Rafe moved behind the desk so Hillcrest was farther away. "Nor would I associate with anyone who felt it necessary to do so."
"I said enough! He is dying and wants Alice wed before he goes. It is time to assume your responsibilities. The contracts have been accepted--"
"Not by me!"
Hillcrest raised his chin another notch, signaling increased implacability that hardened Rafe's resolve. "We will hold the wedding in three weeks. The betrothal announcement will appear in tomorrow's papers."
"No!" Betrayal. All the worse for being unexpected. Why would Hillcrest court the very scandal he abhorred? "You cannot force me into a union I repudiate."
"You have nothing to say in the matter. Pauling and I signed the settlements last week."
"You signed?" He glared, appalled at this newest evidence of disrespect. "I am of age and cannot be constrained by your signature. I have refused the connection a hundred times. A thousand times. Nothing has changed."
"Exactly. Nothing has changed. Pauling accepted your hand on Alice's behalf twenty years ago. Since you are dragging your feet, I've made all the arrangements. Your valet is closing your rooms and will arrive this evening."
Rafe's temper shattered. "You are worse than Napoleon, trying to force your will on others. But you'll lose, just as he did. I will never wed Alice. Your scheming will only create a new scandal for you to mutter over."
Rafe grabbed the brandy decanter and headed for the door. "I'm leaving--permanently. If Jameson has removed so much as a cravat from my rooms, I'll have him transported for theft. Think about that next time you consider playing God with other people's lives."
"If you walk out that door, I'll leave every groat to a benevolent society. You'll never receive another shilling from me."
Rafe laughed. "A toothless threat from an impotent tyrant. I haven't received a shilling from you in ten years, Hillcrest. Keep your money. I don't need it. As for Alice, if you want Paulus Grange so badly, marry her yourself. I refuse."
"If you leave, Pauling will sue you for breach of promise."
"Impossible." Rafe vulgarly gulped brandy from the decanter, then grinned as Hillcrest's face purpled. "Oh, he can probably sue you. But I signed nothing, and I promised nothing. Do you recall the part of the marriage service that requires a response from the groom? If you drag me to the altar, that response will be Never! Rather than accept Alice, I would marry the first girl I see. Lady or leper, princess or prostitute, it makes no difference. And that's a vow."
Still carrying the decanter, he slammed the library door and stormed from the house.
At least the groom had kept Caesar ready, as ordered. He hoped Jameson was as smart. Swigging brandy to dull the pain of this latest betrayal, he cantered down the drive.
By the time he reached the turnpike, the decanter was empty and the sting of incipient tears had replaced his fury. How could Hillcrest be so cruel?
Rafe shook his head. A better question was why he left himself vulnerable to Hillcrest's attacks. He ought to know better, yet he'd obeyed this summons, hoping yet again that Hillcrest might finally consider him worthy of respect.
Stupid. When would he accept that they would never be close? The battle lines had been drawn the moment an infant Rafe had showed a preference for his doting mother over his stern father. Nothing had changed. The price for his father's acceptance remained repudiation of the woman Hillcrest despised.
Rafe always refused.
Lady Hillcrest had been a saint, devoting her life to shielding him from Hillcrest's diatribes. It had been natural to protect her in turn. But Rafe's loyalty had further inflamed Hillcrest. Her death had changed nothing. Rafe must now protect her memory from Hillcrest's continuing attempts to turn her into the meek-mannered cipher he'd wanted.
He halted at an inn to refill the decanter.
If Alice had been different, he might have considered her, despite her dowry. But she was the antithesis of his ideal wife, having lifeless looks, a bland personality, and a mind incapable of original thought. Bedding her would be less exciting than watching wood decay.
He preferred women with spirit. Nothing heated the blood faster than a lively debate with a witty mind--especially when that mind was attached to a seductive body. And what better way to settle differences than a passionate romp in bed? It was the sort of relationship he enjoyed with his liaisons.
Remounting Caesar, he spurred toward town.
His first call must be on his solicitor. He had never actually studied how much authority a parent had over an adult child. Was he right that Hillcrest's signature could not bind him? Were there other ways Hillcrest could interfere with his life?
That newspaper announcement would create scandal no matter how it played out. A lady could break a betrothal, but a gentleman could not. He hated the idea of publicly denouncing his father, but that might be the only way to avoid ostracism. He would not wed Alice.
Escaping ostracism would not restore his credit, though. His reputation would convince many matrons that he had compromised Alice, then refused to wed her. His two-week absence from town might support such tales.
He cursed his reputation--and his own idiocy. Ten years earlier, his mother's death had triggered a month of debauchery and dissipation as he fought to assuage grief. That brief craziness had founded a reputation that haunted him to this day.
"There has to be a solution," he mumbled, wishing he could think clearly. He shouldn't have drunk so much brandy. Already his head felt muzzy, with swarms of bees buzzing in his ears.
He slowed Caesar to a walk as cobblestones replaced the rutted road. Five- and six-story buildings closed in on either side. A cacophony of clattering wheels, hooves, and shouts enfolded him as carts and carriages jostled for position on the crowded street, most headed for Blackfriar's Bridge.
He swayed. That second bottle had left him more well-to-go than he'd been in years. Dizziness nearly unseated him as he tried to shake away the spots dancing before his eyes. Venders vied for his attention, offering meat pies and fresh milk, flowers and rag dolls, apples and sex.
He squinted at the bony prostitute. She must be starving if she was plying her trade this early. It was barely four.
Tossing her the decanter, he swerved down a side street and out of sight. She could eat for a week by pawning the bottle, and he needed both hands free if he was to stay on his horse.
Cursing this latest stupidity, he squinted at a sign, then turned down another street. He'd drunk fast and deep, so the effects were still catching up with him. His body craved sleep, but he had to see his solicitor. Maybe Shipley could cancel Hillcrest's announcement. Surely the newspapers would cooperate when they learned that the notice was false.
An accident blocked most of the street, but he squeezed past and turned down Green Walk, a narrow lane skirting the wall surrounding Christchurch. Shipley's office stood opposite its rusty gate.
"Devil take it," he muttered, peering around as he dismounted. "Where'sh everybody?" People usually clogged the lane, including half a dozen boys seeking half-farthings in exchange for minor services. He needed one to hold Caesar, but today even the boys were gone. Probably to gape at the accident--or pick the pockets of those gaping at the accident.
He was leading Caesar to the nearest lamppost when the screech of rusty hinges knifed through his head. A woman charged from the churchyard, nearly knocking him over. His free hand caught her before she bounced into the filthy street.
"Oh!" The gasp was a husky contralto that snapped his nether regions to attention. "I didn't see--Ooh!" Her second gasp was wantonly seductive. One hand slid down his chest while the other caressed the scarred cheek that fascinated so many of his conquests.
Another courtesan plying her trade early. But this one he would accept. And if she was half as talented as she seemed, he would keep her awhile.
"Very nice," he murmured, examining her wares. She was nearly as tall as he, her tawny lashes level with his mouth. Fiery curls framed a heart-shaped face containing the greenest eyes he'd ever seen. Nipples puckered by a dampened yellow gown distracted attention from its shabbiness.
Clever. Very clever. His fingers itched to touch, his lips to suckle. What a temptress! Circe herself could do no better. He'd hardened with astonishing speed.
Lust drove all thought from his mind. He wanted her. Needed her. If not for Caesar tugging on the rein, he would take her right now. Where the devil had everyone gone?
Business first, he reminded himself, recalling why he was here. Lust must wait, though he needn't postpone all pleasure.
Jerking her against him, he closed his mouth over hers, plundering her sweetness. His hand shifted to caress a breast already swollen with passion.
One shapely thigh rubbed his throbbing shaft as she swayed.
He lost himself in her taste, images tumbling through his head of fiery curls spread across a pillow, that wanton body pressing--
"No!" she gasped as his hand slipped down the front of her gown. She stumbled backward, shock blazing in her eyes.
It took him a moment to understand that his erection had startled her, and another moment to register that she hadn't kissed him back....
He narrowed his eyes, clawing through the brandy fog to examine her again.
Her features were refined. A rose branch and several thorns clung to her skirt, explaining the snags. A reticule hung from one wrist. Her hair retained the imprint of a bonnet. She'd dashed through the gate as if the hounds of hell nipped at her heels. Was the terror now swirling in her eyes the cause of her flight or the result of his advances? She was probably a virgin.
Damnation! His loins still throbbed. But avoiding virgins was the one rule he'd never broken, not even during the madness of ten years ago.
"Pardon me." Though frustration bit deep, his apology was sincere, if a bit slurred. "I didn't expect to find a lady here. Why are you alone?"
A thud echoed across the churchyard, widening her pupils. "Please help me, sir. Can you direct me to Berkeley Square? My guardian lives there."
"What?" He knew he was drunk, but why was she in Southwark if she was seeking Berkeley Square? It was miles away on the other side of the Thames.
She inhaled, tightening her gown across that magnificent bosom and trapping his gaze on her pebbled nipples. His shaft pressed painfully against his pantaloons.
Words reverberated inside his head--marry the first girl I see. Marriage would be no hardship with this one and might solve all his problems.
"--uncle is forcing me to wed my odious cousin," she was saying in a very cultured voice. "I jumped from a window, but I won't be safe until I reach my guardian. Quickly, sir, before they catch me. How do I reach Berkeley Square?"
"How is it that your guardian lost track of you?" he asked absently, his eyes still trapped. His head whirled faster. Heat surged through his loins. First girl ... marry ... princess or prostitute...
"My uncle incarcerated me because he wants my estate. Please, sir. There is no time." Louder thuds echoed. She lowered her voice. "They will find me gone at any moment. How do I get to Alquist House in Berkeley Square?"
The name wrenched his gaze to eyes seething with desperation. "Lord Alquist is your guardian?"
"He died a fortnight ago," Rafe said slowly. "I just returned from his burial. Didn't anyone tell you?"
She swayed, blanching, one hand covering her mouth. "Dear Lord. No wonder he dared bring me to London. What am I to do?" Muffled shouts joined the thuds. "He's coming. I have to leave. My trustees are with Formsby's Bank on Broad Street. Can you direct me there?"
The bang of a door hitting a wall signaled a broken lock. Voices shouted over one another.
"--ought to wring her--"
"Damn the bitch!"
Rafe's heart raced. Her problem was worse than his. Her pursuers sounded too angry for a rational discussion.
"I'll take you." He tossed her across Caesar's withers, then swung up behind her as curses flowed from the churchyard. "Stay low and hang on."
Spurring to a canter, he kept her head below the top of the wall so the men racing toward the gate would not see her. The moment Caesar cleared the church, he turned down a side street, then into a maze of narrow lanes.
"Who are you?" he demanded when they were out of sight, hoping conversation would distract him from another wave of lust--every stride ground her hip against his erection.
"Helen St. James, daughter of Sir Arthur St. James of Audley Court, Somerset." She flung an arm around his neck as he rounded another corner, plastering her against his body.
"The honorable Rafael Thomas, at your service," he managed. With her head pressed against his chin, her perfume engulfed him. Heliotrope, his mother's favorite scent.
Marry the first girl I see. She was certainly spirited enough.
In a bid to restore his reason, he ducked into an alcove between two buildings so he could put some space between them.
"Relax," he commanded, prying her fingers loose. "You are safe."
She released him, but his relief was short-lived. Now it was her eyes that captured him, drowning him in their green depths. If only he had full control of his faculties! But his head spun worse than ever. Clatters and shouts from the street beat dully against ears awash in the rush of blood. He burned wherever she touched him. Her taste--
Gathering his few remaining wits, he forced his mind back to business. "We have a problem, Miss Shan-Sin"--he couldn't get St. James to roll off his tongue, so he settled on--"Miss Helen. I can deliver you to Broad Street, but the trip will take the best part of an hour. By then the bank will be closed. Is there anyone you can stay with until morning?"
"I have no acquaintances in town just now. My uncle has held me hostage since my father died last year. I planned to slip away tonight and find Lord Alquist, but you say he is dead."
"He was struck down by a wagon two weeks ago."
"Then what am I to do?"
Church bells chimed five.
It was far too late to seek Shipley's help. The solicitor couldn't reach one newspaper before it went to press, let alone the dozen that might have received Hillcrest's announcement. Not all of them were based in Fleet Street.
Dizziness spread to his stomach, which threatened to cast up the brandy. That reckless vow again screamed through his mind. Marry the first girl I see ... first girl I see ... first--
"You must marry me." The words shocked him, though he didn't reclaim them. It was the best solution for both of them. "It is the only way to retain your reputation. Spending the night together is bad enough. Leaving you alone would be worse. Without my protection, you will be ruined by morning--provided you live that long. London is dangerous."
"Marry you?" She choked.
He met her gaze. "I'm not such a bad bargain, Miss Helen. I'm heir to a viscount and considered a gentlemen in deed as well as blood." At least in most circles. "Marriage will thwart your uncle. But we'll have to hurry. Doctors Commons closes soon."
Helen cursed the shock that froze her tongue. She stared at Mr. Thomas--the very drunk Mr. Thomas. His breath smelled strongly of brandy. His tongue was tied in knots. Green-tinged cheeks and blurry eyes confirmed his condition--foxed to the gills. At least he wasn't violent. She'd barely escaped a beating the last time Dudley had come home in his cups. While Mr. Thomas had been on the verge of ravishing her right on the street, she could hardly deny that she'd invited his advances. Since her refusal, he'd been a perfect gentleman.
He swayed. "We need a special license, Miss Helen. Doctors Commons is the only place to get one." Narrowing his eyes, he added, "You are of age, I presume."
"Twenty-two. Quite on the shelf."
"I wouldn't go that far." He brushed her hip, swirling heat into her stomach. Every touch had done that since she'd run him down. And that kiss...
He scrambled her wits, making the last hour seem even more unreal.
She hadn't seen him before crashing into him, then had been too stunned to back off--and not because of the impact. He was tall, dark, and hard. Very hard. And blazingly masculine, exuding power that demanded attention. Those muscular arms and shoulders needed no padding to fill his well-cut coat. His legs were equally fine. A curly-brimmed beaver hat pressed dark curls onto his forehead, reminding her strongly of Alex--
Wrenching her thoughts from the cad who had jilted her four years earlier, she focused on Mr. Thomas. Or tried to. It was hard to think through a pounding head and churning stomach.
His most surprising feature was the silver filigree that cupped his left cheekbone like delicate lace, reflecting the silver-gray of his eyes and adding intrigue and character to a face that might have seemed conventionally handsome otherwise. Before she'd realized her intent, her finger had traced that enticing scar. It was clearly old, for it blended smoothly into his skin.
Heat had seared her fingertips. Then his mouth had plundered hers, shutting down all thought. Not until she'd identified the hardest muscle of all had she come to her senses.
Thank God she'd pulled away. Another time she would have fled, but she was desperate. And he'd been her only hope. The narrow street had been quite empty, and his arms had seemed so very safe....
Her ears buzzed louder than a beehive.
Rafael Thomas, viscount's heir. That was all she knew about him. Name and station. Why would he offer marriage? She tried to imagine, but Steven's blow had scrambled her wits.
Even with the scar, he could have anyone he chose, and he must know it. She could imagine women throwing themselves at his feet, for he exuded an aura that commanded her to touch, explore, and demand satisfaction. Every brush of his body strengthened the command. Every whiff of his scent urged her closer. Her hand rose--
Shocked at the images forming in her mind, she shook her head--and immediately regretted it as pain knifed through her skull. Steven had halted the carriage as the church tower tolled four. So unless she'd been with Mr. Thomas far longer than she thought, she had been unconscious for half an hour. Concussions muddled thinking, which ought to prompt caution. If these sensual longings were a side effect, they might disappear by morning.
Yet Mr. Thomas was right. With Lord Alquist dead, she had nowhere to go. London was dangerous for a woman alone. With her lack of either money or maid, no reputable innkeeper would accept her. So he was her only hope. She should thank Fate that he was offering marriage rather than ruination. That alone indicated an honorable character. She could do worse--Dudley, for instance.
"Well?" he demanded.
Her hands twisted in her lap, but she nodded. "You have done me a great honor, Mr. Thomas. I will endeavor to make you a proper wife."
Relief was so dizzying that Rafe nearly fell off Caesar. Marry the first girl I see. "You might as well call me Rafe, my dear," he managed. "You have made me the happiest of men."
The declaration dealt a fatal blow to his stomach. Twisting sideways, he retched again and again, dredging up his very toenails. His betrothed--another spasm hit with the word--uttered soothing sounds, adding embarrassment to his discomfort.
Nearly a quarter hour passed before he headed for Blackfriar's Bridge and Doctors Commons, one arm wrapped securely around her as if fearing she might disappear.
Fool ... fool ... fool.
The charge battered his head with every step. What the devil had he done?
He was worse than a fool. This latest impulse might ruin him completely. What did he know about Miss Helen St. James anyway? She might be mad or diseased or incapable of intelligent thought. Anyone accepting such a ramshackle proposal must have something seriously wrong with her. She possessed an estate, uncommon beauty, and a vibrancy that demanded attention. So why was she unwed at the advanced age of twenty-two?
Yet it was done. Having given his word, he could not renege. And the match would end the fight over Alice once and for all.
But never in his wildest dreams had he expected this to be his wedding night.