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Authors: Samantha James

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General

A Perfect Groom

BOOK: A Perfect Groom
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Samantha James

A Perfect Groom

Contents

Prologue

He always knew he was wicked.

One

The atmosphere at White's was not particularly different from any...

Two

Miss Arabella Templeton strained to see around the marble column...

Three

"Miss Arabella Templeton," he drawled as he recovered his powers...

Four

Early the next afternoon Georgiana burst into the drawing room.

Five

They wheeled so suddenly she clutched at his shoulder. "Justin!"...

Six

On her way up the stairs, Arabella very nearly stopped...

Seven

Back at his townhouse, Justin downed the contents of an...

Eight

"Arabella? Arabella, whatever is wrong with you this morning?"

Nine

In all honesty, Justin didn't know until the last minute...

Ten

Strong hands descended to her shoulders, steadying her even as...

Eleven

It was late when Arabella woke the next morning. Sunlight...

Twelve

Tea was just being served when they arrived. Arabella chatted...

Thirteen

His searing gaze trapped hers. "You shouldn't. I'm a rake.

Fourteen

At five minutes before the hour of seven the next...

Fifteen

The ceremony began at precisely
three o'clock
the next afternoon...

Sixteen

Justin didn't move. He couldn't. He couldn't even breathe. She...

Seventeen

One week later they returned to
London
from
Bath
.

Eighteen

In bed that night they lay near to each other,...

Nineteen

Beyond that first day back in
London
, the next few...

Twenty

The instant she was gone, Justin spun around. A wrenching...

Twenty-one

Wednesday of the following week, Justin was whistling as he...

Twenty-two

Her tears were not, Justin was convinced, tears of happiness.

Twenty-three

"Madame,"
Ames
announced, "a caller for you."

Epilogue

Four-year-old Grayson Sebastian Sterling tugged at his mother's skirts. Arabella...

 

Prologue

 

He always knew he was wicked.

Despite the fact that the
Sterling
children were of the very same parentage and grew up in the very same household, they were, in point of fact, all quite different.

His elder brother Sebastian was the responsible one, steadfast and dependable, studious and thoughtful and ever proper. His baby sister Julianna was possessed of a sweet, bubbly nature.

But Justin…he was every bit his mother’s son.

Ah, yes, he was the most like his mother, not only in resemblance — he had inherited the crystal clarity of eyes that shimmered like the finest of emeralds, the exquisite artistry of features that were in perfect balance, her fine dark hair — but in…well, other ways as well. Indeed, he was convinced, in everyway…

He still remembered those first few years after Mama ran off with her lover.

Mama had many lovers, he suspected. Of course it was one of those things that no one talked about openly, but it
was
discussed in hushed, quiet whispers. And despite the fact that he wasn’t bookish, Justin
was
a precocious little boy who absorbed every last word of the servants’ gossip — the dark glances that signaled their pity over the way the marchioness had abandoned her three children, leaving them in the care of their father, a man who gave every impression he was at odds with the world at large. After all, it wasn’t as if Papa liked anyone. Not Sebastian. Not even sweet, adorable Julianna, whom everyone loved. And especially not unruly Justin.

His tutors pronounced him hopeless. Undisciplined and disruptive. Inattentive and unruly. He didn’t excel at his lessons like studious Sebastian.

From the time he was very young, he was well aware it was a good thing Sebastian had been born first; Justin knew he’d have made a horrible Marquess of Thurston once Papa was gone. Somehow, he was always doing things he shouldn’t. Thinking things he shouldn’t. Saying things that were perhaps better left unsaid…especially to Papa. Little wonder that he was ever at odds with his father. He couldn’t sit still for hours at a time. He squirmed and fidgeted in his chair. He stared out the window and heartily wished himself elsewhere.

Justin disliked his studies from the very first day he’d joined his brother in the schoolroom. One day he simply decided he’d had enough. After the noonday meal, he slipped out of the schoolroom without telling anyone. Perhaps he should have expected that their tutor, Mr. Rutherford, would immediately tattle to Papa when he failed to return. Perhaps he had.

He was never quite sure he’d expected that Papa would deign to remove himself from his study.

Of course, to an eight-year-old boy, it was vastly amusing to see everyone searching for him. Perched high in the branches of a tree in the orchard, Justin peered down while the servants ran frantically to the stables and all about the grounds of Thurston Hall. He snickered when Papa paced to and fro before the tree. But all at once Papa paused…and looked up.

That the marquess was not pleased with his second son was evident in the sizzle of his gaze.

“Why aren’t you in the schoolroom?” demanded the marquess.

“Because I’m here,” retorted the little boy. “Is it not obvious?”

“Come down here now, you vile little wretch!”

The little boy stopped tittering. His jaw firmed. Green eyes flashed. “No,” he said.

His father’s hands balled into fists. “Come down this instant, I say!”

His father’s rage did nothing but inspire the little lad’s mutiny. Stretching out a thin arm, he caught the knobby branch above. Higher he climbed, too caught up in the moment to hear the creak beneath his foot. Exultant now, he glanced down through twirling leaves at his father’s upturned countenance.

The branch gave way. Justin tried to break his fall and landed hard upon his wrist. He heard the snap as fire stabbed through him — a hot, sizzling streak like a dozen knives resounding in every part of him. For one paralyzing instant he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even breathe. The pain was so intense he thought he might lose consciousness.

At last he rolled to his back. His father stood over him, his features dark and livid. The marquess bent low. “On your feet!” he ordered. Curling his fingers roughly around the lad’s other arm, he hauled his son upright.

At his side, Justin’s wrist was cocked at an odd angle from his hand. It throbbed so abominably he wanted to retch. Bravely he swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He clenched his jaw against the pain and glared at his father.

“Don’t!” came his father’s familiar bark. “Don’t!”

“Don’t what?” The boy’s calm did nothing but infuriate the marquess.

“Don’t look at me like that!”

“Like what?”

“The way
she
did!”

Something was rising inside the little boy, a festering resentment, a twisted swirl of emotion he couldn’t control — nor did he want to. In that moment, he hated his father. Hated him for the harsh control he exerted over his brother Sebastian. Hated him for the way he turned a blind eye to little Julianna. He didn’t care if Papa took the birch to his backside.

He hated his father…as he sensed his father hated him.

“Who?” he inquired icily. “Do you mean Mama?”

Sheer rage flamed in his father’s eyes. “Shut up, boy! Shut up!”

He struck the boy hard across the face.

The blow felled Justin to the ground once more. This time he shot upright of his own power. Through glittering green eyes, he regarded his father. “I won’t!” he cried. “She didn’t like you any better than I do, Papa, any better than Sebastian…or anyone, for that matter! Perhaps that’s why she left!”

The marquess snapped. “How dare you speak to me so! Wicked, that’s what you are, boy. Wicked!”

Vile curses spewed from his lips.

It wasn’t the first time his father had called him names — it wasn’t to be the last, either. Names that…well, names that he’d never confided to anyone, not even Sebastian.

All the while the lad proudly stood his ground. He never flinched — never even blinked — though every word pummeled his heart, his very soul. When at last a heavy silence descended, he merely tipped his chin.

“I trust, sir, that you are finished?”

Disdain dripped from his tone, a frigidity that should have been far beyond his years, far beyond his experience. A snarl twisting his lips, the marquess drew back his fist once more.

Suddenly Sebastian was there. He thrust his way between them. “Papa, stop!” cried the eldest. “Look at Justin’s wrist…there’s something dreadfully wrong!”

And indeed, there was.

A physician was summoned. Inside the house, Justin lay on his bed. The physician cocked a brow.

“ ‘Tis broken,” he announced. “I believe I can set the bone back into place, lad, but I must be honest. It’s going to hurt like the very devil. So if you feel the need to howl…”

The marquess hovered directly behind the physician.

Justin’s gaze collided with his father’s. There was a lump the size of an apple in his throat. His eyes burned…his father’s image wavered, then righted into focus.

It was then he glimpsed his father’s satisfied little sneer and he realized his father expected him to cower and wail and weep. His mouth compressed. Mother hadn’t. Sebastian didn’t. And he
wouldn’t
.

Sebastian squeezed his shoulder. “Justin,” came his whisper, “do you hear? It’s all right if you —”

“It is not,” the boy refuted fiercely. His gaze locked with his father’s. “I won’t cry. I will never cry!”

The physician gave a nod and stepped over him.

There was a sickly crack as the bone slipped back into place. Justin’s thin body jerked. His back arched off the bed. The thin fingers of his free hand wound into the sheets. When it was done, he lay white-faced and panting.

But he did not cry. No hint of sound whatsoever passed his lips…

The marquess gave a snort of disgust. Without a word, he turned and stalked from the chamber.

* * *

 

Wicked.

As often as he could,
whenever
he could, the marquess taunted his second son. He shouted it. He screamed it. He whispered it, when no one else was about.

Not once, in all the years of his youth, did Justin Sterling chance to glimpse his father’s chest swell at his accomplishments or his eyes shine with pride.

He was well aware there was little point in trying. The marquess held his son in disdain.

Time marched on, and the spindly-legged boy grew tall and straight and handsome. His attendance at
Eton
was marred by numerous incidents and letters to the marquess. His father’s disapproval multiplied, in perfect parallel with Justin’s defiance.

Ah, yes, his mother had put the blight on the family name, while he was the bane of it. His deeds were atrocious, his behavior appalling. If it displeased his father, it pleased
him
.

And he reveled in it.

He drank. He gambled. He whored. And if his father knew it, well, all the better.

One warm June night, the summer of his seventeenth year, he stumbled into the house just before dawn. He’d just spent a very pleasurable evening with a bottle of port and the miller’s daughter, and the combination had left him deuced exhausted. Faith, but the girl was creative in ways he’d never expected. Ah, but she had a talent with her mouth that —

“Where the devil have you been?”

The marquess barred his path.

A slow smile curled Justin’s lips. “What, my lord, you wish an account of the night’s activities?” He didn’t bother with a form of address. He’d stopped calling him Papa years ago. Now he wouldn’t even deign to call him Father to his face.

He gestured grandly toward the door of his father’s study, which stood ajar. “Perhaps we should be seated. This could take some time, for the evening’s entertainment was interesting, shall we say. I give you fair warning, though, it’s altogether possible you may be shocked —”

“Cease!” hissed the marquess. “I’ve no intention of listening to your filth!” His gaze raked Justin from head to toe. “Christ, you’re drunk, aren’t you?”

In the face of his father’s sneer, Justin executed a courtly bow, as courtly as he could manage given his sotted state. “An astute observation.”

His father’s lip curled in disgust. “God, but I wish you’d leave. I wish you’d leave and never return!”

Justin’s mocking smile remained. “All the reason to remain.”

The marquess clenched his fists. “By God, I could make you. I have the power to make certain you never show your face here again!”

“Ah, but what would that say to the world? You drove Mother away, while you threw me
out
. At any rate, you needn’t put up with me but a while longer. I’m off to
Cambridge
at the end of summer, remember?”

“And I shall be glad, for every day you are here is a living hell!”

Justin inclined his head. “A sentiment, I daresay, I return in full measure.”

BOOK: A Perfect Groom
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