– Virginia Romance Writers Holt Medallion Award of Merit
– Gulf Coast Romance Writers Silken Sands STAR Award
– Heartland Romance Authors Show Me The Spark Award
– Voted one of the Top 10 Historical Romances for 2013 by readers in the RomCon Readers’ Crown contest
A desperate young woman … Lady Louisa Barrick will do anything to save her estate and the village that depends on it, but when she tries to use a rakish privateer in her scheme, things don’t turn out as planned.
A duke masquerading as a privateer … Jonathan Derek Wentworth has a scheme of his own: to track down the ton-based smuggling gang responsible for his father’s death. When he’s caught in a compromising situation with Lady Louisa, he decides it’s better to marry her than to risk being ostracized by the London society whose invitations are vital to his plan. But Louisa refuses to marry him, unless he meets her terms, one of which is a month-long reprieve from consummation.
Intent on seduction, Derek doesn’t count on his unexpected jealousy wreaking havoc with his emotions, his marriage, and his masquerade. Lucy, still grieving the death of her father, wants desperately to avoid another heartbreak, but fears she may have schemed herself into a marriage with the one man destined to break her heart: a man who isn’t what he seems, who obviously can’t be trusted, and who will surely leave her the first chance he gets.
Baltimore, near-coastal waters, 1809
The gentle thump of water against wood was the only indication that the sloop had taken a swell. The ship continued on its course without a moment’s hesitation while spars creaked, rigging groaned, and canvas snapped lightly in the wind. They were sounds that Captain Derek Wentworth usually found soothing, but they offered no such comfort tonight. Tonight his life would change, no matter what his decision, but he knew the choice he had to make.
The leather-bound journal, its gold buckle gleaming in the glow of yellow lamplight, stared back at him as if it had a life of its own. And it did. His father’s life. A life Derek had scorned. One he’d convinced himself he didn’t want.
And now it was his.
He closed the cabin door and tried to shrug off the weariness that clung to him like a shroud. All these years he’d waited for his father to contact him, to acknowledge his degree from Harvard or his accolades as a shipwright. In his dreams his father would apologize, begging forgiveness, admitting that banishment to America had been harsh treatment for a boy of fourteen who’d wanted nothing more than his father’s notice. But in his heart he’d always known his father would never utter such words, for the same reason Derek needed to hear them. Pride. They’d both had too much pride, and now it was too late. His father was gone. Without a word of apology or praise, without a goodbye.
And Derek was expected to take his place.
He reached for the package delivered by one of England’s finest ships. Inside the pouch, along with his father’s ring and seal, were the legal documents stating that he, Jonathan Derek Wentworth, was the eighth Duke of Dorrington.
He didn’t want to return to England this way. He had planned to return in glory, as a man his father respected, but after reading the journal, he realized he didn’t know what kind of man that was. He’d worked so hard to excel at his schooling and his business, wanting to show his father he’d outgrown his childish ways, needing to prove that when the time came, he’d be able to manage the vast Dorrington holdings. Yet according to the journal, his father had let those holdings, the finances, even family matters, go while he pursued traitorous criminals. His father had put his country first and all else second, while Derek had abandoned his country of birth for another. Or so it must have seemed when Derek stayed on in America after completing his education. But he hadn’t wanted to stay in America. His pride had kept him from returning to England without an invitation. That blasted pride.
Desolation seeped through him, making his limbs too heavy to lift. Until this moment he hadn’t realized how much he cared… about his father’s approval, about the family he’d left behind. He hadn’t known how much he cared about England.
A soft knock sounded, and the cabin door creaked open. His first mate, Michael Morgan, stood stalwart in the doorway, compassion etched upon his weather-beaten face.
“Captain, have you made a decision? Are we heading home to Baltimore?”
Derek was silent as thoughts swirled through his mind. Home. Was Baltimore home? His business he could sell, his estate and ships too. Pamela, whom he’d planned to marry, was already betrothed again, and not to the man Derek caught her in bed with, but to someone else. No, America wasn’t his home. There was nothing for him here.
With a heavy sigh he nodded. “Yes, Morgan, I’m going home—to England.”
Nineteen-year-old Lady Louisa was destined to be the savior of Chelton. The villagers had pinned their hopes on her, their expectations, in fact, and as surely as the sun would rise, she would not let them down.
They’d first seen her when she was but six years of age when her father, Philip Barrick, the eleventh Earl of Chelton, brought her to Stonecrest Manor to live. She was a pretty poppet with her heart-shaped face, long, dark curls, and vivid blue eyes that shone with excitement, and it took little more than meeting the girl to know that she was exceedingly sweet-natured as well. At that time, the villagers expected Philip Barrick to be their savior, and, indeed, he seemed perfect for the role, notwithstanding the small truth that he had ignored his responsibilities to the earldom for nigh on fifteen years.
But the villagers were a forgiving people, mostly because they had no choice. They were stuck with Barrick as earl, assuming the gentleman satisfied the requirements of the strange entailment, and to their way of thinking, this earl could hardly be worse than the last. That gentleman had arrived each spring, one of a party of jackanapes with their ladybirds, and proceeded to spend the annual requisite month of residency drinking, shooting—in general, carousing—before dragging himself off to London, leaving the estate in a shambles. No one had cared when that earl quit showing up, not even when speculation rose that he had kicked the bucket. (Not that anyone thought the earl had hung himself; it was more likely the bucket had been full of ale and he’d drowned in it.)
Several years passed before Philip Barrick first appeared. He took stock of the place—or so said the tenants who still lived on Stonecrest land—and then he introduced himself around and made it known that he intended to restore the neglected manor so that he could settle there with his bride.
Barrick rode off in the direction of London. He wasn’t seen again for eight years.
In the meantime, those who’d become disgusted with their meager living gave up and moved away. Those with a trade to ply took to the road, bringing money back to their families in between situations. Stonecrest’s tenants, who at least had rent-free roofs over their heads, continued to eke out an existence by tending their gardens, trading food, and exchanging skills amongst themselves.
And then one day Barrick returned. He brought with him his six-year-old daughter, Louisa—Lucy, as he called her. By then the manor was uninhabitable, at least it wasn’t fit for a child, and so the two of them stayed only a day. But he was back within a sennight, alone save a work crew, and a month later the title and estate were his.
Before long, the villagers, having short memories when it came to the past and high hopes when it came to the future, decided that if they could choose their own earl, their choice would be Barrick because this gentleman had many qualities to recommend him. Unlike most aristocrats they’d known, he wasn’t afraid to get dirty; he toiled in the fields alongside his tenants and workers when necessary, and directed them when it wasn’t. He was not a high-stickler; he graciously accepted invitations to sup with the local families until the manor was restored and staffed. He was a loving father; he doted on his only child, bringing her along on visits to his tenants, and letting her play with their children.
But perhaps more to his favor than anything else was the simple fact that Philip Barrick was a charming man; he liked people and people liked him.
The future had looked bright. The new Lord Chelton kept busy improving his manor and fields. He hired local help, he purchased local goods. Stonecrest Manor was on the road to prosperity, and by extension, the village was too.
Then Lord Chelton went and got himself killed—gunned down by a highwayman in the middle of the day on a road so seldom targeted by thieves that no one could recall such a thing ever happening before. But happen it did, to everyone’s sorrow and dismay.
And so, all eyes turned to Lady Louisa, for the villagers knew that in accordance with the entailment, Stonecrest Manor would soon be hers. She was a young lady of fine character, responsible and compassionate, and they didn’t mind at all if she raced across the fields on her stallion, astraddle, in breeches. The village of Chelton would be saved from its demise;Lady Louisa would be their savior.
That the young lady they looked to for their salvation would be forced to sacrifice her future to ensure theirs never once crossed their minds.
Stonecrest Manor, Hertfordshire, England, 1811
Lucy’s first tingle of alarm came when she spied her uncle’s stylish carriage bustling along the lane toward Stonecrest Manor. Nathan Barrick, Earl of Chelton since the death of her father, abhorred the country, a fact he never failed to mention on his infrequent visits, the last of which was but a fortnight ago. For him to return so soon and at such a fast clip did not bode well.
“Harry, make haste!” she urged her newly hired footman, who was securing the last basket of foodstuff in the wagon bed. Harry turned from his completed task, his eyes widening at the sight of the carriage speeding toward the manor. His curious gaze settled on Lucy.
“It’s Lord Chelton,” Lucy said, apprehension gnawing at her stomach, “and he cannot know what we are about.”
If her uncle learned that she was sharing the manor’s food and other supplies with her tenants, he would withhold even more of the quarterly allowance, saying her extravagance was proof she didn’t need the funds. As it was, he pocketed a good fifty percent of the money meant for the manor, leaving Lucy to stretch every farthing to the end of its limits. She would not let her tenants go without the necessities, though, and since she couldn’t be honest with her uncle, she’d been forced to sneak behind his back. The tingle of alarm turned into a prescient shiver as she worried that he had somehow learned of her deceit.
“Oh, dear, where is Bridget?” On any other day her maid would have made her appearance within seconds of Harry’s arrival, or the arrival of any footman, for that matter. But on the one day that Lucy really needed her …
Before she could decide whether to send Harry looking for the girl or to go herself, the kitchen door flew open and Bridget flounced down the steps. She was sporting the bonnet Lucy had given her not an hour earlier, but the bonnet was all done up with new trim. The robin’s-egg blue of the ribbon was quite flattering to Bridget’s red hair and fair complexion. From the pose Bridget struck at the bottom of the steps, solely for Harry’s benefit, it was clear to Lucy that Bridget knew it too.
“I was wondering if you needed anything before you go, my lady.” Though Bridget’s words were meant for Lucy, the maid’s eyes were fixed on tall, blond, handsome Harry.
“Actually, Bridget, I’m afraid you and Harry must make the rounds without me. Lord Chelton will surely require my presence here.”
A broad grin nearly split Bridget’s freckled face in half and she clambered up into the wagon within seconds, eager to be off. By the time Harry settled himself in place on the wagon seat, Bridget had slid over against him. Lucy restrained a half-hearted smile. Poor Harry. He had best get used to Bridget’s attentions. She wasn’t likely to turn them elsewhere while Harry was at Stonecrest.
“Take the path through the woods past the old gardener’s cottage,” she instructed the pair. “You can begin your deliveries at the south end and work your way back. Stay off the lane whenever possible.” It was imperative that her uncle not see the wagon full of foodstuff, and just as important that he not see Harry, else she would lose this footman to her uncle just as she had the last.
“Don’t worry, m’lady.” Bridget said. “I know how to get to every cottage the back way. By the time we’re on the lane, there won’t be nothing in the wagon for Lord Chelton to see. As long as Harry can manage this heavy load, we’ll be just fine.” Bridget took the opportunity to test Harry’s bicep, oohing as she did so. Harry blushed in response.
Lucy waved them off and turned resolutely toward the manor. Whatever matter had brought her uncle here, she must face it head-on.
She lifted her skirts and bounded up the back porch steps two at a time. Charging into the kitchen, she nearly collided with her aunt.
“Lucy! Thank goodness!” Relief melted the worry lines from Eleanor’s face. “You know how Lord Chelton hates to be kept waiting. Oh, dear,” she chided, taking in Lucy’s appearance, “you’ve been to the stable again and that horse of yours has damaged another gown.”
Lucy glanced at her skirts to see the pocket dangling by a few slender threads, and despite the trouble that loomed, she smiled. Ahote’s daily ritual of nosing into her pocket for his treat had created more than one casualty among her gowns, but breaking the stallion of that habit was proving difficult. Truth to tell, she enjoyed it as much as he did. She’d hidden apples in her pocket for Ahote since he was a colt, and although his head had grown while her pockets had not, she loved the game too much to give it up.
There was no time to change; she must face her uncle’s disapproval. But then, he seldom approved of anything about her, and her opinion of him was the same. Still, her disheveled appearance would only support the position he’d recently taken that she must marry. On his last visit he insisted marriage would put a stop to her unladylike behavior of “cavorting” about the countryside, involving herself in activities which “only a man should engage in.” Resentment surged at the recalled criticism. If her uncle cared half as much about his responsibilities to Stonecrest as he did about his prestigious title, she wouldn’t need to “cavort” about the countryside tending to estate matters.
“Why should I care about his opinion of my attire?” she asked her aunt. She mustered as much defiance as she could through her rising anxiety. “When I think of how he has managed to undo all the good Papa did for this place, I could cry. But I’m not going to cry and I’m not going to let Stonecrest matters go untended simply because he thinks people will gossip about my behavior.”
“Darling, I understand how you feel, but you can gain nothing by obstinate behavior. Whether you like it or not, your uncle controls Stonecrest. If you wish to further your cause of seeing it a profitable estate, you cannot thwart his every command.”
Eleanor smoothed Lucy’s hair. “Perhaps a pretense of behaving as he demands would appease him. You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” she added as Lucy started in the direction of the study where her uncle waited.
As Lucy approached the hall, she straightened her shoulders with determination. It was time to speak the truth, time to tell him she had no intention of marrying, at least not until she inherited what was rightfully hers. Otherwise, his ridiculous game of presenting possible suitors, as he had on his previous visit, would go on and on. Although Stonecrest Manor would become hers whether she married or not, the dowry her father left her would go to her husband if she married before she was one and twenty. She needed that money to restore Stonecrest, and she couldn’t take the chance of losing it to a husband who might not share her desires. She had every right to make the decision to remain unwed for two more years. If her father hadn’t wanted her to have a choice, he wouldn’t have provided for it in his will.
Outside the study, she hesitated as she grasped the door handle. Her uncle had a way of manipulating situations and people. He’d had no problem convincing the court that Lucy’s guardianship should be turned over to him, even though her father had elected Eleanor and her husband, Harold, God rest his soul, to share that role. Lucy had been surprised at the time, having no idea why Nathan would take on such a responsibility since he barely had a relationship with Lucy or her father, but it hadn’t taken long for her to figure out Nathan’s scheme. Her uncle was a man without income but with a new title to support. Since the day he took over her guardianship, he had not only withheld half the manor’s allowance but most of her pin money as well, and he confiscated a good part of the harvest.
This made his edict that she must marry more confusing. If she married, Nathan would forfeit those gains to her husband. His action didn’t make sense.
Her heart was heavy as she realized just how difficult he could make the next two years if she didn’t do as he demanded. He could keep even more of the allowance, making it impossible for her to pay the few servants she had, each of whom was already doing the work of two or three, and he could steal all the harvest, leaving her and the tenants with nothing.
If only she were two years older. If only …
Don’t go wishing your life away … Her father’s image was suddenly before her, his tousled auburn hair glinting from the sun, an amused smile on his face. The vision was so real and so painful she had to close her eyes, willing it away.
So many times as a little girl she had wished aloud that time would pass quickly before some exciting event, and always his response had been the same. “Don’t go wishing your life away, little one. Things will happen soon enough.”
Her eyes filled with tears as the memories washed through her. He had loved her so much, taught her so much. And she’d never had any reason to doubt him.
But this time he would have been wrong. The next two years could not pass quickly enough.
“Betrothed?” Dumbstruck, Lucy simply stared.
Nathan Barrick preened, openly admiring his reflection in the gilded mirror displayed above the fireplace. He twirled a slightly mussed auburn curl into place before turning around to face her. “Yes, as I have just said. The Earl of Harlech made an offer, and I accepted.”
He stated it casually, as though he had announced a change in dinner plans. “Your betrothal will be announced in three weeks, when Lord Harlech returns to London, and your marriage will take place before Season’s end. Your aunt can assist you with wedding plans, and you can, of course, hire whomever you need …”
His voice droned on, but Lucy couldn’t focus on the words. She was betrothed. Betrothed! Her uncle hadn’t presented a list of suitors as she’d expected him to do. He’d already chosen the man, and without any regard for her feelings, had agreed to the arrangement.
An arrangement she would be forced to endure for the rest of her life.
Her stunned disbelief turned to anger, and she found her tongue. “I will marry if and when I choose, and at this moment it is not my choice to marry Lord Harlech … or any other man!” Her heart pounded riotously, keeping her from drawing a steady breath. Thoughts raced through her mind, colliding with each other, one barely started before another took its place, each worse than the preceding one. But she would not let her uncle know the extent of her distress. She must, at all costs, keep her wits about her now.
She smoothed her skirts, hoping her uncle didn’t notice how her hand trembled. She could not marry, especially not a wastrel such as Lord Harlech.
“You know Papa’s will as well as I. I don’t need to marry, if I do not wish to. And I do not wish to. As disagreeable as it may be for me to answer to you for the next two years until I receive my inheritance, that is my plan, and you shall not gainsay me. So, if you are quite finished, I will be about my business.” She arose with as much dignity as she could rally, determined to make her escape before her uncle could challenge her.
She wasn’t quick enough.
“This conversation is not over!” Nathan’s voice thundered through the room, stopping her before she had taken two steps. “I’ve given my word and you will marry Harlech, I say. Do you understand?” His face was red and tight with fury. “Because if you don’t, allow me to remind you of a little clause in your father’s will, the clause that gives your guardian the authority to make decisions for you, should your decisions be deemed inappropriate. I have friends with influence; it would be an easy task for me to have you found incompetent. And lest you are not thinking clearly, realize that Stonecrest cannot survive for the next two years without an allowance from me. If you refuse this offer, you won’t see another penny.”
He sneered at her. “What shall you tell this band of impoverished peasants you call servants when you are forced to turn them out hungry?”
Lucy shrank back at the venom in his voice. She had not thought him capable of such cruelty, of such selfishness, but she should have. He had not bothered to hide his true nature; she had simply chosen not to see it for what it was. Remembering her aunt’s words of advice, she quickly decided that a pretense of going along with his plans might be the best avenue for her, at least until she could decide what to do.
“I-I hadn’t thought of that, uncle. But I see what you mean. If I must marry, then I must. If you will excuse me, I’m very tired and should like to retire.”
“If you think to trick me, you’d best think again.” Lord Chelton’s voice took on an ominous quality as he moved closer, his eyes narrowing to slits. Only inches from her face, he lowered his voice to a menacing whisper. “Make no mistake. You will accept Lord Harlech’s proposal or I will ruin Stonecrest, now and forever.”
Lucy drew her breath in a gasp. She could hardly believe such a threat, but the diabolical gleam in her uncle’s eyes supported his words. Unable to utter another syllable, she turned and fled.
How she made it back to her bedchamber, she didn’t know. Her legs were shaking so violently she could hardly stand, and she gave in to the weakness and threw herself across her bed, taking in deep gulps of air.
How could he threaten such a thing? He knew what Stonecrest had meant to her father, what it meant to her. She loved every inch of the hewn stone of the medieval manor. She found peace in its quaint stable, fertile lands and pristine lake. She thought of the repairs and improvements her father had made, and she remembered her vow to carry on with his plans to restore the manor to its former glory so that the villagers and their tenants and servants could lead decent lives once again.
And her uncle would, with one swipe, destroy it all.
Her heart thudded in her chest. Her dowry was her fortune. Her father had given her a choice as to her future, and her despicable uncle would rob her of everything.
Anger replaced fear, and with the anger came determination. Her uncle would not win; she would not let him.
She arose from her bed and wiped away her tears. This was no time to cry. She must think clearly and analyze her options.
She must come up with a plan.
The Grantham ball was the event of the Season. For the past half hour Lucy and Eleanor’s carriage had crawled along, keeping its place in an interminable line of conveyances, but they’d finally arrived at the Grantham’s town home. Carriages packed the street and footmen scurried to them, leading parties of elegantly dressed guests up the walkway to the open double doors. Lucy’s trepidation at putting her plan into action was momentarily forgotten as the excitement of attending her first ball obliterated all else.
She leaned toward the window to take in the scene. Light spilled from the ballroom windows, pooling like liquid silver onto gravel paths. Strains of music underscored by a current of voices drifted through open windows. Guests crowded the ballroom though it was only half past ten and the ball had just begun. Evidently no one wanted to miss a moment of this prestigious affair.
“You must keep your shawl about you,” her aunt said, a disapproving stare fastened to Lucy’s daringly low neckline, “else every rake in London will be at your side.”
Lucy did as her aunt bid, murmuring another apology for waiting until the very last minute to try on the gown. It wasn’t true. She had not waited until the last moment as she pretended to her aunt, but had, in fact, spent hours trying on each and every gown, all of them fashioned for her first Season, which had only just begun when her father was killed. Though two years had passed and Lucy’s girlish figure had blossomed into that of a woman’s, the elegant dresses still fit. Well, mostly.
The moment she saw her reflection in this gown, with its high cinched waistline and deeply cut square neckline, she knew it was exactly the thing to attract a rake. The shimmering pink set off her dark hair and pale complexion, but it wasn’t the color that would garner attention. It was the wide-ribboned waist and the underlying stays that forced her breasts upward until they threatened to escape the fabric altogether. She did worry she might get more than she bargained for; she’d not be able to take a deep breath the entire evening, and she wondered how she’d manage to dance without breathing. But she would make do. She must.
Her heart pounded as their turn came and footmen escorted them up the lantern-lit walkway. The thrill of attending the ball was quickly squelched when she recalled her purpose. She wasn’t searching for a handsome man to fall in love with and marry, as her father had so often teased her about during those happy months preceding her presentation. Indeed, if all went according to plan, no honorable man would ever look at her again.
For a few brief moments her heart ached as the anticipated consequences of her plan hit her anew, but she turned her mind from those thoughts. She’d made her decision; it was time to move forward. Now she must concentrate on finding her closest friend and conspirator, Sara Wharton.
She sneaked a peek at her aunt, then studied the crowd around them, relaxing with relief as she noticed several of the older gentlemen turning attentive gazes in their direction. Eleanor would be too busy warding off the advances of her own would-be suitors to pay attention to Lucy. Widowed almost two years, and with a trim figure, dark lustrous hair and violet-blue eyes, Eleanor was quite as beautiful as any young woman present, and the interest of the gentlemen was evident. Yes, Lucy thought, as a silver-haired gentleman with a determined glint in his eye made his way in their direction, her aunt would be quite busy indeed.
The instant they were through the receiving line, she searched among the hundreds of guests for Sara. A moment later she caught a glimpse of her in a gown of pale blue satin that complemented Sara’s slim figure and blond curls. Lucy smiled back gaily when her friend’s excited gaze fell on her.
As sweet and lively as she was pretty, Sara had been besieged by hopeful young men sinceher debut. She’d told Lucy she hadn’t accepted an offer because she was having so much fun, but Lucy knew Sara’s heart was set on Stephen Thurston, the Earl of Aster, who was expected to attend the ball. Sara’s note had been brief, but there was no mistaking the excitement with which she’d written, “He’s in Town! He’s coming to the Grantham ball and bringing an American privateer!”
Lucy’s scheme had blossomed at that moment, and thus began the flurry of notes between the two girls as Lucy shared her dilemma and secured Sara’s assistance. Sara, whose four gossiping brothers were also in town, assured Lucy she could quickly discover the latest on dit about the American.
As the dance ended, Lucy excused herself to her aunt and hurried in Sara’s direction.
“Well?” Lucy said the moment she reached Sara, whose porcelain skin was flushed a soft pink from dancing. “Have they arrived?”
Sara drew back in feigned shock, her eyes twinkling with good humor. “What? A rake of the first order arriving at a ball before midnight? It could not be!”
“He is a rake, then, and unmarried?” Lucy felt an almost dizzying wave of relief. A rake should be easy to entice, and an American would fit into her plan so much better than an Englishman would. An American would return to his own country. He wouldn’t be a constant in London society, his every appearance stirring up an old scandal again and again.
Sara smiled. “Utterly and completely. According to my brother Ethan, this privateer has plundered more ships, seduced more women, and amassed a greater fortune than any man alive, and James complained that he is handsome enough to make the ladies swoon!”
The sparkle in Sara’s eyes dimmed as she studied Lucy. “Are you certain you wish to go through with this? Your reputation, Lucy. Once it’s ruined, you shall never have that back. Your whole life, everything as you know it, shall be gone. Can you not simply refuse to do Lord Chelton’s bidding?”
If only she could refuse as Sara suggested. If only life were that simple. Her dear friend was a sheltered young woman, as Lucy had been before her father’s death. If someone had told her two years ago that she would be forced to wed against her wishes, she would have thought him addled, but that was before she learned that some men would do anything for money. Her uncle had revealed his greed in countless ways already. Now that she’d fully considered his threat, she was certain that he and his foul friend Harlech had made an agreement to split her dowry. Why else would her uncle relinquish control of the estate?
“I cannot refuse,” she told Sara quietly. “I did not wish to say so in my note, but my uncle has threatened to ruin Stonecrest if I challenge him.”
“But how?” Sara’s brows drew together. “Stonecrest will belong to you in two years. What can he possibly do between now and then to ruin the estate?”
“We are barely hanging on. It wouldn’t take much.” Sara had no knowledge of running an estate; it was pointless to explain how Stonecrest tottered on the brink of ruin. Her uncle was spiteful enough to destroy the entire harvest and forfeit his cut rather than let the tenants sneak away with what little they did, and that meager harvest was vital to their families’ lives. If the tenants left, the fields and even the small gardens would lay fallow. Her uncle might not even wait for the tenants to leave of their own accord. Perhaps he would drive them away by setting fire to a cottage or two. He would not have taken such care to whisper his threats to ensure the servants not overhear unless he meant to do harm. His gaze had held true malice. She no longer had disillusions about her uncle, if she ever had.
“He keeps more than half the manor’s quarterly allowance now and if he withholds more, I don’t know how we will purchase fuel for the tenants come winter. I fear I may be forced to pawn my mother’s necklace.” She touched her neck automatically before remembering that she’d removed the beloved keepsake for the ball. Being without its comfort for a single night was difficult. The thought of losing it forever was unfathomable.
“Oh, Lucy, no. You mustn’t give that up. Perhaps I can help in some way—borrow from my brothers or something.”
Lucy stared unseeing at the dancers, registering nothing but a blur of movement and color through her tear-filled eyes. She could not accept Sara’s help, nor did she want to pawn the cherished necklace, but she might not have a choice. Even if her plan succeeded and she remained unwed until she was one and twenty, without an allowance from her uncle she would have no funds to live on. The necklace would bring in much more money than all the manor’s furnishings combined, and she had nothing else to pawn, except her remaining gowns. She knew how little those would bring; it would not be enough to tide them over for two years. She swallowed the lump of constricting sorrow before tears could begin to fall.
“Whatever else Lord Chelton may threaten, he cannot force you to the church,” Sara insisted.
“Perhaps not force,” Lucy replied as her gaze scoured the perimeter of the dance floor, seeking a rakish stranger who surely would stand out from the English gentleman strutting about in their evening finery. “But I cannot be on guard my every waking—and sleeping—moment. Indeed, while staying at my uncle’s town house, I keep a chest against the door at night for fear I will awaken to find Lord Harlech in my bed! Such conniving is not beneath my uncle’s character.”
“Nor yours, evidently,” Sara replied with a wry smile.
A stab of conscience pricked Lucy, but she refused to let it linger. “I’m doing this for Stonecrest and at no harm to anyone. Surely this American privateer won’t care about his reputation. Lord Harlech, on the other hand, will be so shocked by the scandal that he’ll certainly beg off before our betrothal is announced. I’m quite certain no other respectable man will step up to take his place.”
Sara nodded. “From what I hear of Lord Harlech, his pride—or at least his Mama—won’t permit him to marry a lady used and cast aside publicly by another man, especially if it becomes known that you threw yourself at the man. Other gentlemen will feel the same, no doubt. This American must have had plenty of women throwing themselves at him, yet he’s escaped the parson’s net, or noose, as Ethan likes to call it. Therefore, we can assume he has no wish to give up his freedom, honor or not.”
Lucy chuckled but it caught in her throat.
“What if your uncle bids you to marry him—the American?” Sara asked.
“Marry an American?” Lucy scoffed. “My uncle would never force me to that. He cares as much about his rise in society as he does for money, and he can only rise higher if my marriage takes him there. I daresay a pirate in the family would ruin his reputation more than marriage to one would save mine.”
Sara laughed. “This captain is a privateer. Lord Aster would never associate with a pirate.”
“Pirate, privateer.” Lucy shrugged. “Whatever else he is, he’s an American rake who surely can’t be forced into marriage with an English girl. I can’t see a man such as your brothers describe being intimidated by the likes of Uncle Nathan with his perfect curls and lace-edged cravats.”
“But how shall you do it? What exactly is your plan?”
Lucy shivered, though the ballroom’s temperature seemed stifling. How would she accomplish it? She had no idea. She managed a weak smile. “I confess I haven’t worked everything out, but this American is the perfect pawn for my scheme, and the Bellingham country party offers the best opportunity to do the deed. You are certain they were invited?”
Sara nodded and linked her arm through Lucy’s. “Yes, and I am certain they’ve accepted. If you are set on this, I shall help. At the very least I should be able to garner an introduction to the American through Lord Aster. That will make conversation less awkward next week at the party.
“Oh, dear,” she added, nodding toward a fast-approaching woman whose face was hidden by a surfeit of drooping feathers. “Here comes Mama. Let’s guide her closer to the staircase where we’ll see our quarry the moment he arrives.”
As the girls moved away, a stylish woman stepped out from behind the nearest marble column. Isabelle, Lady Foxworth, hadn’t planned to eavesdrop, but once the conversation had begun, she could hardly have made her presence known. Besides, it had been a fascinating conversation, one she was pleased to have overheard.
“So Lady Louisa is plotting ruination,” she murmured. It came as no surprise that Chelton would try to marry off his niece to Lord Harlech; there was speculation that Chelton had pledged his niece’s dowry against his debts. Lord Harlech was a man of many unpalatable secrets, secrets Chelton had undoubtedly uncovered, since blackmail was his living. The young lady’s plan for the American privateer added a stimulating dimension to the entire affair.
Lady Foxworth smiled, anticipating the delights that the Bellingham party might hold in store.
The situation would certainly bear watching.
The hired coach veered back and forth as the coachman fought to avoid the countless ruts in the well-traveled road. He knew the route like the back of his hand, though, and had no fear he would lose control of his coach. A toothless grin crept across his face as he wondered how his passengers were fairing the ride. They were getting what they paid for: the fastest trip to London a body could make and still live to tell about it. He couldn’t imagine what the hurry was. If a man was going to arrive at a place at midnight, he might as well take his time and arrive at a respectable time. But there was no accounting for the ideas of some folks, and these two gents had definite ideas.
Inside the coach the two men sat across from each other in silence. Eyes downcast, both men lost in thought, they might have appeared to be asleep if not for the lightning-quick reflexes exhibited as they struggled to remain in their seats with each wild swerve of the coach.
“Great God Almighty!” cursed Stephen Thurston, the Earl of Aster, as a particularly violent jolt threw him across the coach and onto his friend’s lap. “What the deuce is that driver about? If it weren’t for the fact that we haven’t yet paid him, I would swear he was trying to do us in!” Without waiting for a response, he regained his seat, this time gripping the handles on either side of the small coach in order to avoid another tumble.
Derek smiled. “You’re just annoyed because I won the wager within minutes of our departure. You were foolish to think you could hold your seat longer than I, considering my experience riding stormy seas.”
Silence followed as each man returned to his thoughts.
About an hour later a change in the gait of the horses signaled a nearing of the city. Dense woods fell away from the road, and the intermittent brightness of the full moon flashed through the windows, freezing their expressions with the stark emotion of their thoughts. As the horses slowed to a trot and the movement of the coach became a steady, forward motion, both men settled comfortably in their seats.
“This is your last chance to change your mind,” Stephen said, the tense set of his jaw revealing his mood, “because if we don’t pull off this masquerade, I don’t want to even think about the consequences.”
Derek drew his gaze from the window and settled it on his friend of more than twenty years. “We will pull it off. Every possibility has been anticipated and analyzed, and the appropriate actions accordingly planned. I’ve been over each step of my plan a thousand times during the past six months, and I tell you without a single doubt that we will pull it off.” He relaxed against the seat, displaying a purposefully lazy smile. “You ought to believe me. After all, I’m nothing if not thorough.”
Stephen chuckled at his own words being used against him, his mood instantly lightened, as Derek had planned. They were within a quarter hour of making their appearance at the Grantham ball, where each of them had a part to play in Derek’s risky scheme. Stephen would fail miserably in his part if he continued to focus on what could go wrong.
“Yes, thorough is but one word I’ve used to describe you,” Stephen said. “There are plenty of others that are at least as descriptive, though many would contradict another. But that’s why I’ve let myself be coerced into helping you with this hare-brained scheme. I’m just a little bit interested to see how you manage to pull it off.”
“Coerced, my eye. And you’re just a little bit interested? The first few words were barely out of my mouth before you were chomping at the bit to get involved. You’re exactly as you were in school, but I warn you: just because you managed to fool the headmaster with your ‘I didn’t want to but he made me do it’ routine, don’t think you’ll get away with that here. If you’re only a little bit interested, I’ll have the driver pull up and let you out.”
“All right, all right, I confess I was itching to get at this, but can you blame me?” Stephen’s excited grin evoked Derek’s memories of the boy who’d so convincingly conned headmaster and maids alike when they’d been in school. “This reminds me of old times and truly, I wondered if those would ever be again. From the moment you arrived back in England, you’ve thrown yourself into managing your inheritance as though the entire country depended upon it. This little escapade gives me hope that the real Derek is still alive, even if hiding behind the façade of dreary duke.”
Derek made no reply. Stephen hadn’t given up one small, very profitable shipping business to take on six mismanaged estates and a couple thousand employees. Stephen had inherited one small country estate and a London town house. He couldn’t possibly comprehend the responsibilities of a duke, especially one whose father had let everything go to the point that his family perched precariously at ruin’s edge. Bringing their holdings and their investments back from that point, ensuring their futures, had taken Derek’s every waking moment since he returned from America more than a year earlier. Well, except for those moments he’d spent carefully planning his masquerade.
Stephen’s insistence on participating in the scheme to uncover the smuggling gang cannily concealed within England’s ton had not surprised Derek. Just as Stephen had wanted to be a part of Derek’s pranks during their childhood, he wanted to be a part of this. But Derek had been surprised when Stephen first tried to talk him out of it, insisting it was too dangerous; many of Derek’s transgressions during his youth were prompted by Stephen’s dares. Perhaps his friend had grown up after all.
So had Derek, and he knew this undertaking was no prank. If what he suspected was true, the men he sought were not only guilty of smuggling and treason, but also of murder, at least of his father’s murder, and infiltrating the smuggling gang was the only way he could gather enough proof to bring them to justice.
He would have preferred to leave Stephen out of it, but then who would plant the rumors about the infamous Captain Wainright, and who would introduce Derek into London society as that man? Someone had to do it, and the friends he’d thought to trouble with the task had been unavailable.
Stephen leaned toward him, a mischievous smile on his face. “You should be looking for a wife, rather than a smuggling gang. You have other responsibilities as a duke… such as providing an heir and a spare.”
Derek groaned inwardly. The very subject had been a thorn in his side for several months now. At the age of thirty, he knew his responsibilities to his title better than anyone, but the mere thought of putting himself on the market made him want to run off to sea—permanently. There were too many horrifying tales about sweet, kind, innocent young ladies whose personalities changed once the vows were spoken, and he knew all too well that such a fate could be his as easily as another’s. He’d narrowly escaped that fate in America, and his then-fiancée, Pamela, hadn’t even known of his English title and fortune. He shuddered to think of the traps that would be set for him in England once word got out that the eighth Duke of Dorrington was looking for a wife.
He would proceed more carefully this time. He would hire a private investigator to scrutinize every detail of his chosen bride’s life, and he would be especially vigilant to maintain the strictest sense of propriety to avoid compromising situations until he found the malleable, sweet-tempered young woman he would marry.
But Stephen was right; he must work on the little problem of finding a wife. His mother was anxious to see him settled, and he would not deny her that comfort. Life with his father could not have been easy nor happy, and Derek wanted her to be happy.
“I’ll turn my attention to the business of finding a wife,” he said, “after I’ve finished the business of finding my father’s murderer.”
“Alleged murderer. You base everything on a journal your father wrote almost in code, without proof that any of it is true. If I knew the names of the men you seek, I could introduce you to the right people. Otherwise, we’ll be wasting time.”
“The less you know, the better for you,” Derek said firmly. “No one can suspect you of hiding anything if you’ve nothing to hide.”
“Ha! You don’t fool me. You’re worried I’ll let the cat out of the bag. You probably still think it was something I said that led to your getting caught in the Eton fiasco. Let me remind you that I didn’t admit to my part until after you confessed.”
Derek smiled at the memory of the incident when Stephen had carried a note from the Famous Four, as Derek and three of his cohorts were called in school, to young women at a nearby brothel. It was an exciting, heady experience until the women were caught in the boys’ room in the middle of the night. In truth, it was an exciting, heady experience regardless of the consequences. What better way to be introduced to sexual pleasure than by prostitutes who knew everything about the subject?
The boys had been lucky to come away with nothing more than pleasure and knowledge. He suppressed a laugh as he remembered the horrified look on Jack’s face when, the next day, he began to itch uncontrollably. Derek let Jack worry for a couple of days before admitting he’d rubbed itching powder into the cloth of Jack’s drawers. No doubt Derek would have paid dearly for that, but his family’s carriage arrived minutes later to take him to Dorrington, and he never saw Jack again.
“You know,” Stephen said, studying Derek intently as though he could read his mind, “I’ve puzzled over something since you asked me to help you with your masquerade. Why me? Why didn’t you ask one of the Four? I’ve got to believe that any one of them would have more experience with intrigue than I.”
Derek hesitated for the briefest moment, knowing the truth would not be welcome. Stephen, being two years younger than Derek, had been more of a hanger-on than a cohort. They’d grown up together, since their family estates in Yorkshire were adjoined, but two years made quite a difference in school. Derek maintained their friendship and had tried very hard to make Stephen feel as though he were a part of Derek’s group of friends, but the truth was that Derek would feel better if one of the Four were helping him out with this masquerade. He decided to be honest with Stephen, but to state it in a way that would not cause ill will. Stephen had always been a bit jealous of Derek’s other friends, if memory served.
“I thought about it,” Derek admitted, “but your credentials outweigh theirs. I don’t need a master of intrigue. I need someone who can introduce me to the cream of London society, and none of our other friends fit the bill. The last I heard of Nick, he was in the country recovering from a duel with Lord Jacoby. Unfortunately, he’s recovering with Jacoby’s wife. I hardly think the ton would embrace any friend of his. Then there’s Jeremy, who has actually married—though I still can’t believe it—and while I’d like to meet the young woman who managed that impossible feat, I doubt she’d appreciate my getting him involved with a gang of smugglers. And Jack … well, I haven’t a clue what Jack is up to these days. I couldn’t find him.”
“If Jack were sitting in my place, I daresay you’d tell him the list of names in your father’s journal.”
“No, I wouldn’t. I’m not keeping information from you because I think you ratted on us at Eton. You barely had a part to confess to, and that was a good thing. You got to stay on at school and milk your newly wicked reputation for all it was worth, while the four of us were banished forever.” Derek pushed away the thought that the Eton incident was also the reason he’d been sent to America, it being the “last straw” as his father had put it. “The point is, you know enough to do your part and you really must stop worrying. I’ve gone over everything—”
“Yes, yes, I know.” A scowl darkened Stephen’s features and he ran his fingers through his hair. “You’ve gone over everything a thousand times and you’ve no doubt all will go exactly as planned. Except you can’t foresee every possible problem, even though you think you can. Let me remind you that we make our appearance in a hired hack instead of my crest-emblazoned carriage simply because of an unexpected weak wheel. You didn’t foresee that.”
“Our method of arrival is of little import compared to everything else, and besides, it was your carriage. You knew we would be using it. You should have ensured that it was in good repair.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. You couldn’t depend upon me, a lifetime friend and a partner in this masquerade, to have a carriage in good repair, and yet you will be depending upon complete strangers, members of the ton, no less, to accept you for whom you pretend to be, to trust you in a partnership of illegal activity. It’s reckless.”
Derek held in a sigh, weary of the argument Stephen had brought up several times now. He had no fear he’d be recognized. He’d seen only family, servants, and his solicitor since his return, and he bore no resemblance to that defiant boy who’d left England sixteen years ago. Besides, he’d been known as Jonathan Wentworth in his youth. No one in England had ever called him by his middle name Derek; he doubted that anyone besides family and Stephen even knew of it. He realized he must steer Stephen away from this thread of thought. Nothing could be gained by worrying, not when his plans were well laid.
“Let’s not speak of the danger or foolhardiness or whatever you want to call it again. The decision was made; we are almost there. I appreciate your concern as much as I appreciate your help, but I owe this to my father. I should have been a better person, or at least a better son. If I had been, perhaps I’d have been here to help him with this conundrum instead of in America living my life as I damn well pleased.”
“You are too hard on yourself,” Stephen said quietly. “You were but a boy when he sent you away. If one of you should have made an overture, it was he, especially when you outgrew your childish pranks. There wasn’t an article on shipbuilding that didn’t cite your name. He had to have been proud and should have told you so.”
Derek shrugged away the pain that came with the reminder that his father never acknowledged a single one of his achievements. He could understand a father’s anger over a son’s rebellious youth. Derek himself couldn’t explain what had driven him to that bad behavior, unless it was to get a bit of the attention his father lavished on his younger brother, Anthony. But hadn’t he gone on to prove his worth? There was no point in thinking of that now, or ever again. He couldn’t change the past.
“Perhaps,” he replied. “But perhaps he wasn’t able to make amends. I can’t take his character failings personally. As for this business, he was trying to do what was best for his country, and I mean to finish that for him. So, from this point on, I become Captain Derek Wainright, American privateer. This ball is the perfect place to launch our drama. I can hardly wait for Act I to begin.”
“You’ll have to wait no longer,” Stephen said as the coach came to a halt in front of the Grantham mansion. “Take a deep breath, Captain Wainright. The drama begins.”
Derek took in his surroundings in one quick glance. Intricately painted walls flanked the oval entrance to the ballroom, and finely crafted pieces of Hepplewhite furniture were scattered about. Above the music of the orchestra he could hear voices, laughter, and the clinking of crystal. Now that the moment was upon him, he felt a tingle of excitement that he was finally putting his plan into action.
His attire was as formal as Stephen’s, but the differences, some subtle and some not, were there. He’d opted for skintight black trousers paired with soft-soled Indian moccasins, his choices certain to set him apart from the aristocrats in their white breeches, stockings, and dancing pumps. His lawn shirt was practically transparent, and the simple tie of his cravat was an American style he much preferred over the immense, flowery bows worn by so many Englishmen. Forgoing a waistcoat, he sported only a black dresscoat, double-breasted and cut high in the front, with long tails in the back. His overly long dark hair was caught loosely in a black silk ribbon at the nape of his neck, a slightly outdated style, which, nevertheless, lent him a rakish air.
Stephen had chosen to dress more conservatively, for though Derek was to exhibit a devil-may-care attitude, it was imperative that Stephen maintain the appearance of respectable nobility as expected of the Earl of Aster. While the ton might enjoy the excitement of keeping society with an American privateer, they would never do so without the pretense of respectability that Stephen’s position and title offered. Stephen’s presence meant the difference between acceptance and ostracism, and both men knew it.
The entrance hall opened onto a raised dais, and as Derek stepped closer he could see down the sweeping staircase into a crush of glittering guests. The soft light from a thousand candles reflected back from the highly polished oak floor, casting a glow on the pale yellow damask wall coverings. The strong odor of beeswax mixed with smoke took him back in time.
He smiled, remembering his antics as a boy of fourteen, home after his last expulsion from school, when he’d hidden under a serving table during a ball given by his parents at Dorrington Hall. He passed the evening in rapturous delight, watching from underneath the tablecloth for tantalizing glimpse after glimpse of trimly turned ankles. His fun ended quite abruptly when his father’s shoes appeared and the tablecloth was snatched up.
He’d been thoroughly punished for his escapades, but the looks directed at him by some of the ladies as he slid out from under the table to his full height and strode arrogantly from the room had made that punishment worthwhile. Even at that age he’d been aware of the ladies’ interest in a fine physique. Lady Danders had winked at him in a most sultry manner when he nodded at her in passing. One week later she taught him the art of seduction.
Ah, the innocence of youth, he thought nostalgically. He turned his attention back to his surroundings and stepped up onto the dais for a better look.
He searched the crowd. Dark eyes under a fringe of red curls caught his gaze. Lord, she was a beauty, though too obvious for his tastes. As he began to look away, the girl dampened her lips with her tongue ever so slowly, and he realized from her provocative stare that the performance was for his benefit. She was little more than a schoolgirl, but her expression told him that all of her experience hadn’t come from the schoolroom.
Remembering the rogue he was supposed to be, he returned her coy gaze, casually looking her up and down, lingering for a long moment on her breasts. When he finally moved his gaze back to her face, he was amused to see that the shade of her cheeks now matched that of her hair. Yes, she was young. Young enough to think she could handle what she had started, too young to go through with it. He gave a shrug of boredom and looked away from her. It was then he realized he was the center of attention.
From the corner of his eye he saw Stephen hanging back, ensuring that nothing would distract the guests from their first look at the American privateer of whom they should have heard so much. Stephen’s plan was evidently working. Guests turned toward the staircase, conversations dropped to murmurs, and dancing couples slowed their movements as everyone stared unabashedly up at him.
Derek could guess at the thoughts of the women who stared boldly at his crotch, but he reminded himself that he wasn’t there for that. Then, as he began his descent down the staircase, movement caught his eye—a glimpse of palest pink silk, the slender curve of a young woman’s gloved arm as she set a drink on an offered tray. He stopped and stared while the room fell into silence.
As the guests followed the direction of his gaze, the hush gave way to whispers, but Derek was powerless to tear his eyes away from the lovely vision before him. He could not seem to move at all, and then he could not keep from moving in her direction. Many of the guests stepped back in confusion, giving him a clear path to the object of his attention. As the music of the orchestra died away to a few trailing notes, the whispers grew to a crescendo, and the vision in pink turned fully in his direction.
He was stunned by her natural beauty. The translucent glow of white skin kissed by pink, the contrast of dark hair pulled up and back in a cascade of soft, silky waves, and the innocence of wide eyes graced by arched brows as gentle as doves’ wings made her seem totally vulnerable and completely untouchable at the same time. He knew that approaching her was improper, but he couldn’t stop himself. And then he remembered he didn’t have to obey the dictates of English society.
He was, after all, an American privateer.
With each step, there was a fresh assault to his senses. The girl’s gown was but a mere blush of color and he knew it signified her purity. But she needed no such symbol. No one could look upon her and not realize instantly that she had never known the touch of a man.
But dear God, she was ripe for it.
The soft glow of her skin, the full, slightly parted lips, the graceful curve of her neck that gave way to a fuller curve of young, firm breasts just waiting to be suckled… A moan escaped him as he stiffened with arousal.
The girl’s eyes were entrancing, an amazing shade of blue—the startling blue of the cornflower fields at Dorrington Hall—and fringed with long, black lashes. There was no doubt he could lose himself in those eyes. They were so beautiful and huge and … scared.
Scared? She was scared? Her reaction baffled him, but even as he pondered her expression, he realized she must have heard the rumors or at the very least some of the whispers now circulating through the ballroom. From every direction he heard the words seduction and plunder and fortune being bandied about. If she believed even half of what she must be hearing, she could swoon. Judging from the look on her face, it was entirely possible that she might.
Lucy stood frozen in place. The most magnificent-looking man she’d ever seen was headed straight in her direction. He had a splendid build from head to toe, displayed to perfection in expensively cut, form-fitting clothes.
Tall and undoubtedly strong, he moved with uncommon grace, yet he exuded a dangerous sensuality quite unlike any gentleman she had ever seen. She knew he must be the American captain that Sara—indeed, all of London—was gossiping about.
He commanded a certain respect simply by his countenance. It wasn’t merely his physical attributes that were so captivating, though his wide shoulders, narrow hips, and trim waist were certainly exceptional ones. It was more his demeanor, the power simmering just beneath the surface. He looked to be a man who knew what he wanted and if need be, took it, though it was hard for her to imagine him being refused anything he desired.
His face was bronzed and handsome, his jaw firm. His features denoted intelligence, determination, and more than a little arrogance. But it was his eyes that captivated her. His eyes were arresting, their intensity searing. He branded her with his stare.
Lucy’s heart hammered harder with each step he took in her direction. She couldn’t swallow, wasn’t even certain she was breathing. Her legs were paralyzed and trembling wildly at the same time, and she wondered what had come over her while she sought to master her emotions and her body. Never before had she reacted in such a manner to a man, but then, never before had she seen such a man as this.
Her mind was whirling. It was unbelievable that he would approach her this way, though there could be no doubt it was his intention. Had he no manners whatsoever? They had not been introduced! It was unthinkable. Her reputation would be in shreds. Even as the thought formed, she realized the irony of it since ruining her reputation was what she wished to do.
He stopped but inches from her, his tall presence overpowering. She caught the faint scents of wood-spiced cologne and starched linen and something else that she knew was his scent alone. His eyes were ravenous, as though he’d hungered for her all his life and was now determined to sate that hunger. For the first time in her life, Lucy thought she might swoon.
“May I have the pleasure of a dance?” His voice, seductive and melodious, caressed her even as his eyes ravished her. With a start she realized his eyes were gray—or were they silver? Who in the world had silver eyes?
She knew she should turn away or at the very least, drop her gaze, but she could do neither. Instead, she had an illogical desire to reach out and touch him, to assure herself that he was real. What in God’s name had come over her?
A voice startled her, drawing her from her jumbled thoughts. “Ladies, what a pleasure to see you again. May I present Captain Derek Wainright to you? Captain Wainright, may I present Lady Louisa Barrick and Lady Sara Wharton.”
Lucy jerked her gaze from the American captain to see Lord Aster standing beside him. Where the earl had come from she had no idea, but judging from the harried look on his face, he must have raced like the dickens to reach them in time for introductions. A moment passed before she realized that Sara, whose face was lit with excitement, would not break convention and speak first, being the younger of the two girls.
Lucy forced her mind to the moment. Trying desperately to gain her voice, she began with a croak. “Yes, Captain Aster … I mean, er… Lord Wainright … Oh, my goodness.” Her voice gave way to embarrassed silence as her face flushed with heat.
The orchestra began to play, and before she could think or say a thing, the American folded her arm over his, guiding her onto the dance floor. She knew the eyes of every guest were upon her and consequently she stumbled, stepping soundly on his foot.
The privateer raised a dark brow, his silvery eyes glinting with amusement. “I hope you don’t mean to trod on my toes throughout the dance, this being my first one and all,” he drawled with a slight accent. “I do need to keep them in good order for the rest of the night.” He smiled down at her, all roguish good looks and easy manner, as she stared up at him, tongue-tied. “Come now. I can’t be as bad as all that,” he went on. “I won’t ravish you here on the dance floor, whatever you may have heard of me. But if I did, you just might enjoy it.”
Lucy gasped. Of all the impudence! Just who did he think he was, this American privateer? How dare he speak to her in such a manner. She glared at him and summoned her iciest tone. “I doubt if you were to ravish me on this floor that I would enjoy it, Captain. I am hardly an exhibitionist, and I prefer to take my pleasure in private.”
There. Let him think about that. Of all the arrogant conceit. But wait; she mustn’t anger him, not if she wished to be caught in a compromising situation with him next week. Confound it! Why couldn’t she think straight?
“You’re a woman after my own heart,” said the privateer, “but I would never have imagined that you were thinking what I was thinking.” He dropped his gaze, and she followed it to see her breasts fairly bursting from the neckline of her gown with every agitated breath.
“Oh!” Lucy said as she snapped her head upright. “You … you …” She was aghast. Did the man actually believe she wished to be alone with him, or was he only pretending to mistake her meaning? As she put her mind to a retort, she realized he was maneuvering her closer and closer to the terrace doors.
She tried to think. An unlit terrace with a privateer might be exactly the thing. Or should she create a scandal by leaving him on the dance floor? No, that wouldn’t be scandalous enough to deter Lord Harlech from marriage, but it might cause her aunt to cancel further invitations, especially the invitation to the country party. Oh, for goodness sake. She had no idea how to go about this scheming. If only he would stop looking at her as though he planned to gobble her up, she might be able to decide. “Sir, please do not think—”
“That’s the good thing about me,” he said. “I try not to think at all. I just do.” With that declaration, he drew her through the open doors and onto the darkened terrace.
The moment they were hidden from the others, he pulled her into his arms, his lips capturing hers in a devouring kiss that left her weak and wanting more. The kiss gentled as his lips strayed to the softness of her cheek, her neck, her ear, his breath warm and urgent against her skin. He groaned, his hands slipping down to cup her bottom, lifting her up, rocking her gently against him. A thrill coursed through her, a thrill that began in her most private area and quickly spread throughout her body. The kiss turned passionate as the privateer once again claimed her lips, running his tongue lightly between them, until she parted them, seeking to give whatever it was that he sought.
Lucy’s entire body was a mass of delicious shivers and she surrendered to them. She wrapped her arms around him and held on for dear life. She knew her behavior was scandalous, and she didn’t care. She wished he would take her, there, then, not knowing exactly what that meant but knowing that whatever it was, she wanted it. Badly.
From behind them came the sound of a man clearing his throat. The sound barely registered with Lucy, her mind ignoring its meaning, until the privateer released her, sliding her down against his full, hard length. Warmth flooded Lucy’s body, pooling deep in her belly, and she fought him, trying to hold on, pressing herself against him, not wanting the tantalizing sensations to end.
He chuckled. “You’re a passionate young lady. I do believe you weren’t telling the truth when you said you wouldn’t want me to ravish you on the ballroom floor.”
Lucy’s ardor dissipated at the smugness of his tone; embarrassment and shame took its place. Lightning fast, she raised her hand and slapped him hard across the face. His answering grin made her heart pound with fury.
“It would appear I arrived just in time,” Lord Aster said. “Please forgive my associate, for his ignorance of society behavior.”
The expression on Lord Aster’s face was kind, if a little sheepish. Behind him, Sara waited in the shadows.
“We followed you out immediately,” he continued. “Let us hope no damage has been done. Lady Sara will escort you into the ballroom. If you’d like a few moments to recover, the captain and I will hurry around to the other side and make our entrance. Your reputation should not suffer on his account.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Lucy’s trembling voice was almost a whisper. She was still shocked by the captain’s actions and by her response, and she was desperately trying to shake off the maelstrom of feelings, to regain some control.
The American bowed low and with a knowing look said, “Till we meet again, my lady. I’m sure we both hope that will be soon.”
“Oh!” Lucy stamped her foot and turned her back to him.
Sara was instantly at her side. “My goodness,” she whispered as soon as the men departed. “I suspect you’ve made quite a stir inside. I daresay there are men who will look at you differently now that you’ve been singled out by the infamous Captain Wainright. Come now, you must give it up. I must hear the details. How does he kiss? Was it wonderful?”
Lucy stamped her foot again, infuriated by her response to the captain and by Sara’s questions as well. “Is that all you can think about?” she blurted out. “He-he stood here and took advantage of me, and all you can do is ask if his kiss was wonderful?”
Lucy glared at Sara, realizing how ridiculous she sounded in light of her plan, but she was unable to quell her anger. Then Sara began to giggle and so did she as an almost hysterical silliness overtook her other emotions. Moments later they were both gasping for air.
“You’ve gotten exactly what you wanted,” Sara said, wiping a tear from her eye. “He can’t be forced to marry you, and he certainly doesn’t care about your reputation. As you said, he’s the perfect pawn for your scheme.”
Lucy sobered up at Sara’s words. In the back of her mind was a niggling apprehension. Somehow she didn’t think this captain the type of man to be used in anyone’s scheme. Quickly reviewing her sketchy plans for ruination, she tried to imagine any possible way they could go awry, but she could not foresee it. Still, the uneasy feeling persisted.
“I don’t know, Sara. I’m worried. He doesn’t seem the type to be duped. And we never discussed the compromising situation in detail. Shall I be ravished by him or shall I devise a way to make it appear so?”
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so terrible to be ravished by the American, she thought. It was an experience she might never have otherwise, if she never married, and the man was very handsome and exciting. At least she would find out what all the talk—or rather, secrecy—was about.
“What do you think? Must I let him ravish me?” she asked hopefully.
Sara laughed as she smoothed Lucy’s hair into place. “My dear, you are a delight. We shall see. If you must be ravished, then you must. For now, let us go back inside. I fear Mama and your aunt are calling for the salts by now.”