Authors: Debra Mullins
This book is dedicated to
Stephanie Berry and Lisa Presting,
my fellow survivors,
and my mother, Patricia Engel Mullins,
the greatest survivor of all
Eighteen-year-old Lucinda Northcott paused before the doors to the study.
All hope hinged upon tonight’s success. As Lucinda Northcott Devering…
Garrett slept soundly in his grandfather’s house, a fact that…
Garrett descended from his room shortly after two o’clock. He…
Lucinda stared at the arrogant devil tempting her to step…
Lucinda made her way to her room, having deftly avoided…
He didn’t come.
My servants tell me,” the duke said to Garrett the…
That evening Garrett spent a lot of time watching Lucinda,…
Garrett reined in his anger with difficulty. Lucinda had clearly…
It had been a splendid evening—or so everyone said.
What an excellent start to an affair.
By some miracle, Garrett had the presence of mind to…
The foyer smelled like a damned funeral parlor.
There is always a choice, Lucinda.
Lucinda returned from her carriage ride in a cautiously hopeful…
The duke proved he had not given up when Lady…
Garrett was in love with her!
The come-out ball for Miss Margaret Stanton-Lynch was the grandest…
Garrett was doing his best not to watch the terrace…
“You can’t fight a duel,” Lucinda said for the third…
Thursday dawned gray and drizzling. Stobbins would be upset about…
ighteen-year-old Lucinda Northcott paused before the doors to the study. Only major transgressions required her presence in her father’s private domain, and last night’s incident had been her greatest transgression of all.
She took a deep breath and threw open the doors. Behind the massive desk, her father awaited her. General George Northcott was a big man with a broad face and large hands. His massive frame was impeccably dressed in a well-tailored coat of plain blue that emphasized the silver that threaded through his dark hair, as well as the steel gray of his eyes. While normally of an engaging and humorous disposi
tion, today the general looked every bit the forbidding commander he was known to be.
Lucinda had deliberately worn his favorite of her dresses, a frock of white muslin with yellow stripes that emphasized her wide brown eyes, and she had tamed her curly light brown locks into a sedate coil at the back of her head to appear dignified. Yet despite her efforts, no hint of affection shone in her father’s eyes. And when he raised one dark brow and sharply pointed his finger at a nearby chair, her heart sank.
She had really done it this time.
She sat down, clenched her hands together in her lap, and waited. She wished her mother were still alive so she could ask her advice. Ask her how to erase the disapproval from her father’s face and make him smile at her again.
His words vibrated through the room like thunder, though he never raised his voice. It was always thus—when General George Northcott spoke, his words echoed with power.
Lucinda leaned forward eagerly. “He agreed?”
“In a manner of speaking.” The general precisely aligned a piece of paper on his desk with the edge of the blotter.
“What does that mean?” she burst out impatiently. “Did he agree or not?”
“Don’t take that tone with me, Lucinda,” her father warned. “I’ve spent the morning averting
disaster—no thanks to you and your escapade last evening.”
“Silence. You are to be married.”
The knot of anxiety in her stomach loosened, and she let out a relieved sigh. “When?”
“Three days from now. A special license must be obtained.”
“Of course.” She tried to suppress her joy—it was going to be all right. Scandal would be avoided, and the famed Northcott honor would remain unblemished. And her father would once more look at her with approval in his eyes. “What did he say when you asked him?”
“The earl was disappointed, which is to be expected. However—”
“Not the earl! Malcolm. What did
Her father cast her a quelling glance. “He said nothing, as he was not there.”
She frowned in puzzlement. “Then how could he have agreed to the marriage?”
“He didn’t. The earl felt that the daughter of a mere general was not good enough for the heir to his title.” His voice tightened. “He offered quite a sum to silence me on the matter, but you will be pleased to know that I would not accept anything less than marriage.” The general pushed his chair back from the desk. “You are to wed the earl’s younger son, Harry. It was the best I could hope for.”
But I barely know him! It is Malcolm I love—”
“Malcolm is on his way to his father’s estate in Scotland. He will return after the wedding.”
She stared at her father, cold fear in her heart. “I can’t marry Harry Devering, Father. I won’t.”
“You will.” His words slammed into her with the full weight of his disapproval behind them. “You have greatly disappointed me and caused nearly irreparable damage to the Northcott name, which has remained unsullied and respected these past two hundred years. You
marry Harry Devering, and you will do so willingly and with a smile on your face.” He sighed, suddenly looking every day of his fifty-odd years. “I am only glad that your mother was not alive to witness this.”
“Father…” She came halfway out of her chair, but he stood as well, towering over her and brimming with authority. She sank back down.
“You have shamed both me and all the Northcotts before me, Lucinda. I only hope you can make something of this marriage. Now, leave me.” He seated himself back at his desk, pulled some papers in front of him, and began to read.
Slowly she stood and walked toward the door. Her high spirits and country innocence had cost
her everything: the man she loved, her father’s respect, and her freedom.
She had no choice now. She had to marry Harry Devering.
Raynewood Abbey, Hampshire
ll hope hinged upon tonight’s success. As Lucinda Northcott Devering walked through the ballroom of the Duke of Raynewood’s ancestral estate, every conversation died as she approached. The silence lasted just long enough for her to pass by before the whispers rose again in her wake. Gossip swept through the room like a gust of wind up from the London docks, rank with the stench of rumor.
“…died in his mistress’s bed…”
“…no one was surprised…”
“…barren, the poor thing…”
“…really couldn’t blame him, I suppose…”
Lucinda held her head up high, her impecca
ble breeding evident in the board straightness of her spine and her dignified poise. The calmest of smiles played about her lips, as if everyone were not talking about Harry Devering’s ignominious death in the bed of his mistress, or the fact that his widow was making her first social appearance in over a year.
The skirt of her shimmering gold dinner dress swished in gentle accompaniment to her unhurried pace as she made her way toward the dance floor. It was a small assemblage, only forty people, made up mostly of local gentry. The duke had arranged the intimate dinner party with dancing to follow as the debut for his American granddaughter. An informal affair, it was merely to give the girl a chance to practice the manners she had learned from Lucinda these past several weeks. The real thing, Meg’s grand debut in London, would follow.
For Lucinda, it was a test that must be passed at all costs. Her very future depended on it.
For an instant, as she stood watching the couples on the dance floor, she experienced a pang of regret. Once she, too, had danced so gaily without a care in the world. Before she had been so foolish as to believe herself in love. Before she had married and discovered that she had nothing to offer a man, but her sterling breeding. Over the past eleven years she had become known as a paragon of dignified propriety, and
never again would she deviate from that course. The cost was much too high.
Still, her heart ached with the longing to dance and flirt with a man. More than that, to be held by a man, kissed by him, made love to by him. But it was not to be. Lucinda Devering was not a woman who drove men to passion.
Shaking off her despondent thoughts, she turned her gaze to the dance floor, where Miss Margaret Stanton-Lynch, the granddaughter of the Duke of Raynewood, danced with the young Earl of Coucherton.
Meg was all that mattered now. With Meg’s success would come her own.
On the other side of the dance floor, the elderly duke was watching his granddaughter dance with a fond smile on his sharp-boned face. Despite the fact that Meg had only recently made the acquaintance of her grandfather, there was genuine affection between the two that warmed Lucinda’s heart. Meg was as sweet-natured as she was pretty, and both qualities would make her quite sought-after in the marriage mart.
That, and the fact that she was the granddaughter of one of the wealthiest and most prestigious noblemen in England.
The duke looked over and met Lucinda’s gaze, then gave her a subtle nod of approval. Lucinda let out a relieved sigh. Meg had made no social blunders; perhaps this madcap plan
would work after all. Perhaps Lucinda’s future would be assured, despite her dire straits.
Then a crash sounded in the hallway, and the doors to the ballroom slammed open.
“Get your damned hands off me!”
A huge man burst into the room, long dark hair flying about his face and his jaw shadowed with a day’s growth of beard. A footman clung to each arm, trying to stop the brute, but he dragged them along with him into the ballroom. Blood trickled from one servant’s lip, and the other had lost his powdered wig.
Lucinda placed her hand over her pounding heart. Good heavens, were they to be robbed? Was the ruffian insane, to break into the home of the Duke of Raynewood in such a manner? What sort of lunatic would dare do such a thing?
“Garrett!” Meg gasped, stopping right in the middle of the dance.
Lucinda’s mouth dropped open. Garrett?
was Meg’s brother, the one she could never stop talking about?
She moved toward Meg, keeping her gaze on the windblown wild man. The footmen struggled to hold back the American by the arms, and with a roar of rage he shrugged off his coat, sending the footmen stumbling backward. As the hapless servants crashed into Stephens, the hovering butler, Garrett Lynch faced the crowd
in his shirtsleeves with fists clenched, magnificent chest heaving with exertion, blue eyes glittering with the light of battle.
Lucinda’s heart pounded. This was the Marquess of Kelton?
was the Duke of Raynewood’s heir?
Garrett Lynch regarded the glittering assembly of pampered English nobles through a haze of simmering rage and frustration. He had little use for those who disdained good, honest work in favor of living off the efforts of others. Between his own family history and the recent war between England and the United States, Garrett had little love for the so-called superior English.
A deafening silence settled over the room. Even the orchestra had stopped playing. He searched the crowd for the familiar face of his sister, but he was unable to spot her. Damn! One dark-haired girl should stand out easily among so many pale, blond English.
Soft, measured footsteps broke the eerie quiet, and he turned his head to regard the elderly man who made his way to the front of the room. He was tall, and his broad shoulders hinted that he had once been a large, powerfully built man. Age had stolen the brawn from his frame, leaving him bone-thin, but his snow-white hair was still thick and his dark eyes burned in his sharp-boned face. He was dressed in expensive,
well-tailored evening clothes of stark black, and he walked with the air of a man in complete control. Garrett took one look at the familiar, bladelike nose and slanted brows—features he himself shared—and knew immediately who approached him.
His grandfather, Erasmus Stanton, the Duke of Raynewood.
“Ah, grandson,” the duke said jovially, as if they had not just set eyes on each other for the first time. “I see you were able to arrive in time for the dancing after all.”
So the old man was going to play the loving patriarch, was he? Garrett cast a contemptuous look at the duke. He had come all this way for one thing, and one thing only. “My ship is waiting. Where is Meg?”
“I can see you have obviously had a difficult journey,” Erasmus continued smoothly. Only the flicker of annoyance in his dark eyes told Garrett that the man was affected by his grandson’s rudeness. “Perhaps someone can escort you to your rooms so that you might refresh yourself.” The duke glanced at the doorway, where the two footmen and the butler hovered.
Garrett turned and glared at the mincing butler who had refused him entry to his grandfather’s house, forcing Garrett to barge past him, and at the ineffectual footmen who had futilely tried to keep him from searching for his sister.
All three looked terrified at the prospect of going near Garrett, which was fine with him.
“I’m not staying a night in your house, old man,” Garrett bit off. Impervious to the shocked gasps that echoed through the ballroom, he took grim pleasure in the way Erasmus flinched. “Produce my sister. Now.”
The duke’s features hardened, and his elderly shoulders stiffened with pride. He narrowed his eyes. “If you want to see your sister, you young whelp,” he commanded in a low tone, “then you’ll come into the study with me to discuss this like civilized men.”
Garrett met his grandfather’s furious stare unflinchingly with his own. “The hell I will.”
Erasmus continued to hold Garrett’s gaze, his entire visage icy. Garrett refused to look away. For a long moment, the two men remained locked in silent combat.
Just as Garrett was certain his grandfather was about to summon his minions and have him thrown out, a new voice broke their visual contest.
“Meg,” a woman said loudly. “Come greet your brother.”
Garrett whirled at the sound of her voice. Standing behind him was a slender, elegant woman. She was rather tall for a female, but he was a large man, and he appreciated a woman who didn’t look as if she might break if he
touched her. She regarded him warily with her wide brown eyes, which almost exactly matched the shade of her toffee-colored curls. Her body was slim, her breasts small but plump, and her hips gently curved beneath the shimmering silk of her gold-colored gown.
He wouldn’t mind coming home from a long voyage to a woman who looked like this, he thought with a sudden tug of male interest.
Apparently not intimidated by his close study, the beauty gave him a polite smile, then gestured to the dark-haired young woman who stood with her.
Garrett glanced away with effort, then he stared. This was not the Meg he remembered.
She wore a gown of pure white, which set off her dazzling blue eyes, fair skin, and ink-black hair. The gown also clung to her figure in a way designed to make an older brother uncomfortable. Pearls gleamed at her throat and in her upswept curls. Garrett gaped at this familiar stranger in disbelief until she grinned at him, dimples flashing, and suddenly she was his Meg again.
“Meg,” he said, and held out a hand.
Before Meg could reach for him, the other woman stepped forward again, placing herself between the siblings. Mere inches separated Garrett’s chest from the woman’s softly rounded bosom, and the light scent of her perfume
soothed his raw nerves in a way only a man who loved women would understand.
“Perhaps you would care to reunite with your sister in private,” she said so softly that only he could hear, “rather than embarrass her further in front of her new acquaintances.”
Taken aback by her reprimand, Garrett was tempted to roar his outrage, and the crowd be damned. But then he cast a glance from Meg—this new Meg, who looked as primped and polished as the rest of the English beauties—to the well-dressed nobility beyond them.
Damn. He probably had embarrassed his sister with his unconventional entrance. Well, he could act the gentleman for her for one night, much as it galled him to play society’s games. Reluctantly, he gave a nod.
Meg’s lovely champion glanced at the duke. “If you would lead the way to the study, Your Grace?”
Erasmus jerked his head in a nod. Then he turned to the assembly and smiled with a charm that surprised Garrett. The duke’s authoritative voice easily reached the far corners of the silent room as he addressed the crowd.
“As you can see, my grandson is devoted to his sister and is anxious to be reunited with her. His only fault is not sending advance word of his arrival, which has confused my footmen.” A ripple of uncertain laughter greeted this announce
ment. The duke’s smile never wavered. “I’m sure you will all excuse us while we repair to the study for a private reunion.” Signaling to the orchestra to continue playing, he then held out his arm to Meg.
The girl hesitated, casting a longing look at Garrett, but she allowed her grandfather to escort her from the room.
“Allow me to show you the way, my lord.”
Garrett stared after Meg with a scowl on his face, frustrated that his grandfather had absconded so neatly with his sister, but at these words he turned his attention back to the lovely lady with the cautious brown eyes. She watched him coolly, as if he were a barbarian who had been let loose in the palace.
He couldn’t blame her, he supposed. It was common knowledge that Garrett Lynch was a terror when in a temper, and he had clearly lived up to his reputation once again.
Even though the pretty peacemaker was part of the English nobility, he was inclined to think kindly of her. Not only was she physically attractive, but she had been the one to bring Meg to him, after all.
Lucinda was completely astonished when Garrett Lynch turned from savage to gentleman in the blink of an eye.
He gave her an irresistible smile that revealed the same dimples his sister possessed, and of
fered his arm. Startled, she instinctively took his arm. Her fingers curled around warm, hard muscle.
“What’s your name?” he asked, leading her from the room.
As the ballroom doors closed behind them, the murmurs of the crowd became a roar. The duke had minimized the damage with his explanation, and his reputation would do the rest. Meg’s debut would not suffer, despite the near-scandalous interruption.
The American was staring at her, and she realized she had not responded to his question. “I am Mrs. Lucinda Devering, my lord.”
Garrett’s dark brows lowered. “
. Devering? It figures that a lovely lady like you is already married,” he said in a grumble that sounded disappointed.
While he was far too rough around the edges for her taste, a thrill went through Lucinda just the same. To be considered attractive by such a rugged, powerful male made her feel very female in a primitive sort of way—and she was astonished to discover that she liked the feeling.
“You flatter me, my lord,” she replied politely, her tone far smoother than her erratic pulse.
“I’m no lord.”
“But you are,” she replied distractedly. Good heavens, her head barely reached his shoulders! She had never felt more feminine. “You
are the Marquess of Kelton, and the Duke of Raynewood’s heir.”
He stopped in the middle of the hallway and his handsome features hardened once more. “The hell I am.”
Startled, Lucinda dropped her hand from his arm. “That is the third time tonight that I have heard you utter a profanity. I will thank you to control your language in polite company, my lord.”
“And that is the third time tonight you have referred to me as ’my lord’…Lucy,” he replied with an insolent smile. The barbarian was back, and her foolish fantasies evaporated instantly.
She drew herself up. “My name is Lucinda,” she corrected coolly. “But you may call me Mrs. Devering.”
“And my name is
. Garrett Lynch,” he responded. “Or Captain Lynch, if you prefer.
“Actually, the proper address would be Lord Kelton.”