A successful horse breeder and self-proclaimed rake, Harry Lester samples women like wines. But after having his heart trampled by someone he actually loved, he has no intention of falling for a woman again, let alone being ensnared by the trap of marriage. Now, with a large inheritance to his name, Harry knows that he'd best start running from London's matchmaking mothers and widows.
Harry heads for the racing town of Newmarket, only to encounter Mrs. Lucinda Babbacombe, a beautiful, independent widow. And before he knows it, Harry vows to protect Lucinda from the town full of lonely gambling men, despite her refusal to accept his countless offers of help. Lucinda is extraordinary an intelligent, tender woman but will Harry let himself be taken prisoner in this most passionate of traps?
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An Unwilling Conquest
By Stephanie Laurens
MIRACopyright © 2006 Stephanie Laurens
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"Is it the devil we're running from, then?"
The question, uttered in the mildest of tones, made Harry Lester wince. "Worse," he threw over his shoulder at his groom and general henchman, Dawlish. "The matchmaking mamas -- in league with the dragons of the ton." Harry edged back on the reins, feathering a curve at speed. He saw no reason to ease the wicked pace. His match greys, sleek and powerful, were quite content to keep the bits between their teeth. His curricle rushed along in their wake; Newmarket lay ahead. "And we're not running -- it's called a strategic retreat."
"Is that so? Well, can't say I blame you," came in Dawlish's dour accents. "Who'd ever have thought to see Master Jack landed -- and without much of a fight, if Pinkerton's on the up. Right taken aback, is Pinkerton." When this information elicited no response, Dawlish added, "Considering his position, he is."
Harry snorted. "Nothing will part Pinkerton from Jack -- not even a wife. He'll swallow the pill when the time comes."
"Aye -- p'raps. Still, can't say I'd relish the prospect of answering to a missus -- not after all these years."
Harry's lips quirked. Realising that Dawlish, riding on the box behind him, couldn't see it, he gave into the urge to smile. Dawlish had been with him forever, having, as afifteen-year-old groom, attached himself to the second son of the Lester household the instant said son had been put atop a pony. Their old cook had maintained it was a clear case of like to like; Dawlish's life was horses -- he had recognised a master in the making and had followed doggedly in his wake. "You needn't worry, you old curmudgeon. I can assure you I've no intention, willingly or otherwise, of succumbing to any siren's lures."
"All very well to say so," Dawlish grumbled. "But when these things happen, seems like there's no gainsaying them. Just look at Master Jack."
"I'd rather not," Harry curtly replied. Dwelling on his elder brother's rapid descent into matrimony was an exercise guaranteed to shake his confidence.With only two years separating them, he and Jack had led much the same lives. They'd come on the town together more than ten years ago. Admittedly, Jack had less reason than he to question love's worth, nevertheless, his brother had been, as Dawlish had observed, a most willing conquest. The fact made him edgy.
"You planning on keeping from London for the rest of yore life?"
"I sincerely hope it won't come to that." Harry checked the greys for a slight descent. The heath lay before them, a haven free of matchmakers and dragons alike. "Doubtless my uninterest will be duly noted. With any luck, if I lay low, they'll have forgotten me by next Season."
"Wouldn't have thought, with all the energy you've put into raising a reputation like you have, that they'd be so keen."
Harry's lip curled. "Money, Dawlish, will serve to excuse any number of sins."
He waited, expecting Dawlish to cap the comment with some gloomy pronouncement to the effect that if the madams of society could overlook his transgressions then no one was safe. But no comment came; his gaze fixed unseeing on his leader's ears, Harry grudgingly reflected that the wealth with which he and his brothers, Gerald as well as Jack, had recently been blessed, was indeed sufficient to excuse a lifetime of social sins.
His illusions were few -- he knew who and what he was -- a rake, one of the wolves of the ton, a hellion, a Corinthian, a superlative rider and exceptional breeder of quality horseflesh, an amateur boxer of note, an excellent shot, a keen and successful huntsman on the field and off. For the past ten and more years, Society had been his playing field. Capitalising on natural talents, and the position his birth had bestowed, he had spent the years in hedonistic pleasure, sampling women much as he had the wines. There'd been none to gainsay him, none to stand in his path and challenge his profligate ways.
Now, of course, with a positively disgusting fortune at his back, they'd be lining up to do so.
Harry snorted and refocused on the road. The sweet damsels of the ton could offer until they were blue in the face -- he wasn't about to buy.
The junction with the road to Cambridge loomed ahead. Harry checked his team, still sprightly despite their dash from London. He'd nursed them along the main road, only letting them have their heads once they'd passed Great Chesterford and picked up the less-frequented Newmarket road. They'd passed a few slower-moving carriages; most of the gentlemen intent on the week's racing would already be in Newmarket.
About them, the heath lay flat and largely featureless, with only a few stands of trees, windbreaks and the odd coppice to lend relief. There were no carriages approaching on the Cambridge road; Harry swung his team onto the hard surface and flicked the leader's ear. Newmarket -- and the comfort of his regular rooms at the Barbican Arms -- lay but a few miles on.
"To y'r left."
Dawlish's warning growl came over his shoulder in the same instant Harry glimpsed movement in the stand of trees bordering the road ahead. He flicked both horses' withers; as the lash softly swooshed back up the whip-handle, he slackened the reins, transferring them to his left hand. With his right, he reached for the loaded pistol he kept under the seat, just behind his right boot.
As his fingers closed about the chased butt, he registered the incongruity of the scene.
Dawlish put it into words, a heavy horse pistol in his hands. "On the king's highway in broad daylight -- never-you-mind! What's the world a-coming to, I asks you?"
The curricle sped on.
Harry wasn't entirely surprised when the men milling in the trees made no attempt to halt them. They were mounted but, even so, would have had the devil of a time hauling in the flying greys. He counted at least five as they flashed past, all in frieze and heavily muffled. The sound of stifled cursing dwindled behind them.
Dawlish muttered darkly, rummaging about re-stowing his pistols. "Stap me, but they even had a wagon backed up in them trees. Right confident of their haul they must be."
The road curved ahead; he regathered the slack reins and checked the greys fractionally.
They rounded the curve -- Harry's eyes flew wide. He hauled back on the reins with all his strength, slewing the greys across the road. They came to a snorting, stamping halt, their noses all but in the low hedge. The curricle rocked perilously, then settled back on its springs.
Curses turned the air about his ears blue.
Harry paid no attention; Dawlish was still up behind him, not in the ditch. Before him, on the other hand, was a scene of disaster.
A travelling carriage lay on its side, not in the ditch but blocking most of the road. It looked as if one of the back wheels had disintegrated; the ponderous contraption, top-heavy with luggage, had toppled sideways. The accident had only just occurred -- the upper wheels of the carriage were still slowly rotating. Harry blinked. A young lad, a groom presumably, was struggling to haul a hysterical girl from the ditch. An older man, the coachman from his attire, was hovering anxiously over a thin grey-haired woman, laid out on the ground.
The coach team was in a flat panic.
Without a word, Harry and Dawlish leapt to the ground and ran to calm the horses.
It took a good five minutes to soothe the brutes, good, strong coach horses with the full stubbornness and dim wits of their breed. With the traces finally untangled, Harry left the team in Dawlish's hands; the young groom was still helplessly pleading with the tearful girl while the coachman dithered over the older woman, clearly caught between duty and a wish to lend succour, if he only knew how.
The woman groaned as Harry walked up. Her eyes were closed; she lay straight and rigid on the ground, her hands crossed over her flat chest.
"My ankle -- !" A spasm of pain twisted her angular features, tight under an iron-grey bun. "Damn you, Joshua -- when I get back on my feet I'll have your hide for a footstool, I will." She drew her breath in in a painful hiss. "If I ever get back on my feet."
Harry blinked; the woman's tones were startlingly reminiscent of Dawlish in complaining mode. He raised his brows as the coachman lumbered to his feet and touched his forehead. "Is there anyone in the carriage?"
The coachman's face blanked in shock. "Oh my God!" Her eyes snapping open, the woman sat bolt upright. "The mistress and Miss Heather!" Her startled gaze fell on the carriage. "Damn you, Joshua -- what are you doing, mooning over me when the mistress is likely lying in a heap?" Frantically, she hit at the coach-man's legs, pushing him towards the carriage.
The injunction floated up out of the carriage, calm and assured.
"We're perfectly all right -- just a bit shaken." The clear, very feminine voice paused before adding, a touch hesitantly, "But we can't get out."
With a muttered curse, Harry strode to the carriage, pausing only to shrug out of his greatcoat and fling it into the curricle. Reaching up to the back wheel, he hauled himself onto the body. Standing on the coach's now horizontal side, he bent and, grasping the handle, hauled the door open.
Planting one booted foot on either side of the coach step, he looked down into the dimness within.
The sight that met his eyes was momentarily dazzling. A woman stood in the shaft of sunshine pouring through the doorway. Her face, upturned, was heart-shaped; a broad forehead was set beneath dark hair pulled severely back. Her features were well defined; a straight nose and full, well-curved lips above a delicate but determined chin.
Her skin was the palest ivory, the colour of priceless pearls; beyond his control, Harry's gaze skimmed her cheeks and the graceful curve of her slender neck before coming to rest on the ripe swell of her breasts. Standing over her as he was, they were amply exposed to his sight even though her modish carriage dress was in no way indecorous.
Harry's palms tingled.
Large blue eyes fringed with long black lashes blinked up at him.
For an instant, Lucinda Babbacombe was not entirely sure she hadn't sustained a blow on the head -- what else could excuse this vision, conjured from her deepest dreams?
Tall and lean, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, he towered above her, long, sleekly muscled legs braced on either side of the door. Sunlight haloed his golden locks; with the light behind him she could not make out his features yet she sensed the tension that held him.
Lucinda blinked rapidly. A light blush tinged her cheeks; she looked away -- but not before she registered the subdued elegance of his garments -- the tightly-fitting grey coat, superbly cut, style in every line, worn over clinging ivory inexpressibles, which clearly revealed the long muscles of his thighs. His calves were encased in gleaming Hessians; his linen was crisp and white. There were, she noted, no fobs or seals hanging at his waist, only a single gold pin in his cravat.
Prevailing opinion suggested such severe attire should render a gentleman uninteresting. Unremarkable. Prevailing opinion was wrong.
He shifted -- and a large, long-fingered, extremely elegant hand reached down to her.
"Take my hand -- I'll pull you up. One of the wheels is shattered -- it's impossible to right the carriage."
His voice was deep, drawling, an undercurrent Lucinda couldn't identify sliding beneath the silken tones. She glanced up through her lashes. He had moved to the side of the door and had gone down on one knee. The light now reached his face, illuminating features that seemed to harden as her gaze touched them. His hand moved impatiently; a black sapphire set in a gold signet glimmered darkly. He would need to be very strong to lift her out with one arm. Subduing the thought that her rescue might well prove a greater threat than her plight, Lucinda reached for his hand.
Excerpted from An Unwilling Conquest by Stephanie Laurens Copyright © 2006 by Stephanie Laurens. Excerpted by permission.
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