Authors: Jenna Petersen
A Scoundrel's Surrender
For all the readers who have contacted me over the past five years. Thank you for your support, your comments, and your compliments. They've meant the world to me.
And for Michael, who inspires me to try, try again.
hen Caleb Talbot looked across the room toward the beautiful blond woman standing with his brother and sister-in-law, he felt many things. They hadn't known each other very long, but already Marah Farnsworth brought out a desire so powerful it nearly took him to his knees. Beyond that, he was racked by guilt over acting on that desire just a few days prior in an encounter that still melted his bones and haunted his restless dreams.
More troubling, seeing her brought out a flutter of something more. Something deeper, more seductive than pleasure and infinitely more terrifying. Emotions he had scoffed at in his friends and acquaintances when they described falling in love with some chit.
The one thing he did
feel, as she turned toward him and cast a quick smile in his direction, was happiness. These unwanted and unexpected feelings had come at the most inopportune time. The worst time of his life, truly.
Because Caleb was not who he had always thought he was. It had been only a few days since he found proof that he was a bastard, a child born of some kind of indiscretion on his mother's part, not of his father's loins, but some stranger. Worse, his brother had known and hidden that fact from him for years.
And the truth of all these things rocked him whenever it passed through his mind .Â .Â . as it had been passing through his mind on a constant stream for days.
He clenched the glass in his hand until he swore he could feel the delicate stemware creak beneath his palm. And of course, in that troubled moment, Marah came toward him. He watched her move, float really, for women like her seemed to glide weightlessly rather than walk.
“Caleb?” she whispered as she reached his side and looked up at him with impossibly wide and blue eyes that were currently filled with kindness and understanding. Her voice was like music, soothing him.
He shook his head and forced a tight smile down at her. “Marah.”
She hesitated for a moment and then her hand reached out to touch his arm. She meant the brush of her fingers as a comfort, but sparks exploded within him, overpowering him with a desire to grab her, tug her against him, kiss her until everything else faded, all the pain dissipated.
But he didn't. He had allowed himself to drown in her once, to confess the dark rage and pain that bubbled within him. He had taken comfort in her body and could offer her no more than that. And she deserved more. More than he could give, at least at the moment.
“I'm worried about you,” she whispered.
He blinked down at her. Yes, she was.
was. His brother, Justin, who had kept the truth of his parentage from him; his sister-in-law, Victoria, who cast sad looks in his direction when she could bear to tear her loving gaze away from her husband.
The weight of their regard pressed on him, heavy as it amplified his own anger and confusion at being revealed as bastard. He was stifled by it all.
“I'm fine,” he bit out past clenched teeth.
She tilted her head, and her expression said she didn't believe him.
“I-I want to help you,” she said as a blush filled her cheeks that told Caleb she was thinking of their stolen afternoon together. “How can I help you?”
He stared at her. For a moment he was filled with a ridiculous urge to ask her to run away with him. To escape his past, to escape the secret he couldn't forget. To help him drown out the sorrow with her companionship and her touch and the care he had no doubt she would give.
Even though he had nothing to give in return at present. And he wasn't sure if and when he ever would. The idea of dragging her away, as tempting as it was, was impossible. It would destroy her. Use her even more than he already had.
“I must leave,” he said, backing up so that she no longer confused the situation with her touch.
She nodded. “I understand. And I'm sure Victoria and Justin will as well. We all know you need time to digest what you have been told. Perhaps tomorrow .Â .Â .”
He nodded. Yes, perhaps tomorrow it would be better. Except, as he gave a brief wave to his brother and slipped wordlessly from the parlor, he recognized that was folly. Tomorrow wouldn't be better. Nor would the next day.
He swung himself up on his horse and rode off into the night. Only as he passed by the street he would normally turn on to go home, he didn't. And he didn't stop at any of his clubs or the homes of his friends. Without thinking he merely steered his mare out of Town.
Toward.Â .Â .
Well, he wasn't certain what he rode toward. Only what he left behind. A secret he wished he'd never uncovered, a family that was shrouded in a cloud of lies .Â .Â . and a woman whose heart he would break because she would never understand that he was doing her a favor by leaving without a word. By keeping himself from using her as a balm for his grief.
But it was cold comfort as he urged his horse faster toward the unknown.
Two Years Later
aleb Talbot snapped his fingers, then motioned to his empty glass, and the burly, scarred man behind the bar nodded swiftly. Lowering his head, Caleb didn't watch as the barkeep worked his magic, he only smiled when the worn hand placed a fresh tankard of ale before him.
He wasn't quite to oblivion yet, but he was edging closer with every passing moment and he couldn't wait until the pleasing numbness arrived and washed away all thought, feeling, and memory.
At the door behind him, a dinging bell signaled a new patron's entry to the tavern, but Caleb didn't bother to look toward the sound as he dragged his drink closer. He had everything he wanted in the palm of his hand, he had no need to involve himself in the matters of others.
“Well, la-di-da,” muttered one of the men down the bar from Caleb. “Look at the fancy one who just came in.”
The other man's companion chuckled, though the sound was fed more by menace than by humor. “Bet he could part with plenty o' blunt without any trouble whatsoever.”
At the threatening comments, Caleb turned his head and fixed a rather bleary gaze on the doorway. What he saw there cleared his mind of the magnificent fog he had worked so hard to obtain. Without thinking, he shot to his feet, nearly knocking over his ale.
At the doorway, peering around the dingy tavern and appearing as out of place as the Regent in all his finery would have, was Caleb's brother, Justin Talbot, the Earl of Baybary. Caleb's stomach turned at the sight of him, but his heart also swelled with love for his brother and joy to see him, even under these circumstances.
At almost the same moment, his brother's dark gaze fell on him. Justin's reaction was immediate and palpable, a mixture of relief, sadness, anger, and pity. The last made Caleb scowl, his happier feelings gone, and he grabbed for his tankard blindly before he started across the room to his brother. The brother he hadn't seen for over six months.
“What are you doing here?” he growled as he caught Justin's arm with his free hand and pulled him away from the door and into a darkened corner crowded with dirty tables. “This is no place for you.”
“Oh, and it is for you?” his brother asked.
Justin pulled his arm free and took a seat. It was clear he had no intention of leaving, so Caleb flopped into the chair across from him and scowled. “I've been to worse.”
There was a long, heavy pause before Justin nodded. “Indeed, I imagine you have.”
At that moment a buxom barmaid sidled up to their table. She leaned forward, giving both men a long view of her full breasts, lifted by some kind of unseen contraption in her gown. Justin arched a brow at the lewd display, then turned away with bored disinterest. Caleb also looked, but he felt not so much as a stir in his loins.
As if the young woman sensed their indifference, she huffed out a sound of offended annoyance and snapped, “Whadayawant?”
Caleb motioned toward his brother. “A pint for the earl and another for me.”
“Oh yes, my lords. Right away.” She bobbed out a rather snooty curtsy and flitted away.
Once she was out of earshot, Justin sighed.
“Your tankard is hardly half empty, you needn't have ordered another,” he said softly. “But then, it seems you've had enough for both of us already, so perhaps you shouldn't have ordered for me, either.”
Caleb glared at his brother as a wave of intense irritation stole what was left of the pleasantness he had obtained from drink.
“So you did all the work it must have taken to locate me, then rode three days from London, in order to
me?” He leaned back in his chair and speared his brother with a look. “Not so very long ago, you would have clapped me on the back and joined me without hesitation.”
“Times have changed,” Justin said, his angular face softening with emotion as he held his steady gaze on Caleb. “As have you, brother.”
“Indeed, I have,” Caleb said as he swigged his remaining ale in one long drink. He slammed the tankard down on the wooden table with a bang that brought several faces turning toward them. “Now why are you here? When last we spoke, I told you I didn't want you interrupting your life to find me anymore. That, at least, has not changed.”
Justin swallowed hard and his eyes briefly came shut. When he opened them, raw emotion had settled there. Caleb wasn't accustomed to seeing that on his brother's face.
“That is where you are wrong. You see, I-I came here to talk to you about our father.”
Caleb tensed. This subject of all subjects was the most delicate and painful to him and Justin full-well knew it. His fist tightened on the tabletop, but he was saved from answering for a moment when the barmaid returned with more alcohol. Before she had even removed the items from her tray, Caleb grabbed one tankard and slugged half of it. She set the other one down in front of Justin and backed away without any more clumsy attempts at flirtation. It seemed even
could sense the intensity between the brothers and had no interest in inserting herself in it.
“Our father,” Caleb said slowly as the alcoholic haze he had lost when his brother entered the tavern began to return to him. “Don't you mean
father? We long ago established he isn't mine.”
Justin cast a quick glance around the bar. “Mind your voice, Caleb.”
“Why?” Caleb asked with a humorless laugh that instantly faded. “Why does it matter? Why does
of it matter anymore? And
did you come here? Why couldn't you just listen to me for once in your life and leave me in peace?”
“You, in peace?” Justin said with a snort. “Oh yes, you are the image of serenity here in this disgusting hole that is hardly fit for rats, surrounded by drunks who aren't half the man you used to be, and wallowing in pain and heartache like a child who has lost his favorite toy.”
Caleb pushed from his seat in one motion that rocked the table back. Justin was up immediately behind him, and the two men faced off as the other patrons maneuvered to watch, ready to be entertained by a brawl between the drunk and the fancy stranger who didn't belong among them.
“Watch yourself,” Caleb growled. “I don't want to hit you.”
“Yes,” Justin said with a sad shake of his head. “You do. But I didn't come here to start a fight, though I sometimes think it might help if you could just blacken my eye and be done with it. No, I came because .Â .Â .”
He trailed off with a pained expression.
“Because?” Caleb prompted, his anger fading as his curiosity about what could bring his brother here with such secrecy and drama intensified.
“He's dying,” Justin said, quick and flat, as if he were pulling the wrap from a wound in one sweep rather than tugging at it mercilessly.
Caleb blinked. He must have heard wrong.
“Our father,” Justin whispered.
Those two little words sobered Caleb more fully than even the sight of his brother had done earlier. Without the alcoholic haze, the pain that accompanied Justin's statement threaded through his veins, setting his very soul on fire and doubling his heart's rate almost instantly. He shoved at the painful reaction the only way he knew how.
“No. You're lying,” he whispered.
Justin swallowed and Caleb was shocked when he saw the sparkling beginnings of tears in his brother's eyes. He stared, his mouth partly open, for he had never seen Justin so undone. Well, once, when his wife, Victoria, was threatened, but this was different. This was heartbreak, but mixed with resolution and an awful acceptance.
“I wish I were lying,” Justin choked out. “I wish I would wake up and find this was all a terrible dream. But the doctors say they don't believe he'll last the summer.”
“Find better doctors!” Caleb barked. “You have the blunt, spend it!”
Justin's jaw tightened and Caleb saw he had gone too far. His brother's lips were white, drawn tight, and they trembled. Justin looked ready to strike him, just as he had accused Caleb of wishing to do a moment before, but as Caleb had, Justin kept himself in check.
“Don't you think I have?” he asked through clenched teeth. “I've brought in every physician and surgeon in the country with any kind of reputation. Then I transported in a few from the Continent. Hell, I even called in some favors and got the Regent's personal doctor to visit. Nothing has changed. They all say the same thing.”
Caleb grabbed for the back of the rough wooden chair he had abandoned a moment before. He clung to the wood, not even registering the splinter that slid beneath his skin when he gripped it.
Justin frowned. “He has .Â .Â . he's asked to see you. He
to see you, Caleb. He has no idea why you ran away from the family two years ago. I swore to him that I would find you and bring you home. Please don't make me a liar. Not when it comes to what is likely his final request.”
Caleb stared at his brother long and hard as a thousand memories flooded his addled mind. Images of the man he had called his father, both the good and the bad. From the way he had lifted his youngest son high above his head when Caleb was just a boy, to the disappointment that had entered his father's stare when Caleb was about fifteen and had never entirely left, no matter how hard Caleb tried to live up to his father's lofty expectations.
But now the man who had raised him was a candle in the breeze, flickering on the edge of extinguishing. Caleb had avoided him since he learned the truth about his parentage. He hadn't wanted to see him, he hadn't wanted to feel the pain of knowing the marquis wasn't his father.
And in truth, he hadn't wanted to do or say something foolish that would somehow reveal the truth and shatter everything in his father's world.
For all their differences, he hadn't desired that.
Without speaking, Caleb dug into his pockets and found enough blunt to pay for the drinks. He tossed it on the table and motioned his brother to the door.
“My horse is at the inn. Once I've had her saddled, we can depart immediately.”
arah Farnsworth drew in a long breath of fragrant tea before she took a sip, and sighed with contentment. She smiled as she lowered her cup, and the expression was returned instantly by her companion.
Victoria Talbot, Countess of Baybary, had come from London a week ago to visit Marah, and the two old friends had been catching up ever since. Though it was wonderful to see Victoria, Marah felt rather uneasy around her friend in a way she never had before. For as much as they chatted and gossiped and laughed the way they ever had, there was an unspoken topic hanging between them, coloring every moment they spent together.
“Are you planning on staying here forever?” Victoria asked.
Marah shut her eyes briefly. Ah yes, here was that topic, breached at last. And she did not wish to discuss it any more than she had the first moment Victoria stepped from her well-appointed carriage.
“In this room? I doubt it. There isn't a good place to hang my gowns and I don't think I would be comfortable sleeping on the settee,” Marah said, meeting her friend's stare evenly. “Besides, the servants would talk.”
Victoria smiled, but the concern that had been flickering in her eyes since her arrival strengthened. “I think you know what I mean.”
“Of course I do,” Marah said as she set her cup aside and pushed to her feet. She paced to the window and looked outside to the small but tidy garden below.
“No one could ever deny that Baybary is a fine shire,” Victoria continued softly. “Lord knows, I loved my years living here, and the people who reside in this little hamlet are some of the finest in the world. Visiting here is always a pleasure.”
“Then why harangue me about my choice to stay?” Marah asked without looking back to Victoria.
Her friend sighed softly. “I'm not trying to harangue, my dear. I'm only saying that Baybary is very small, Marah. There isn't much company here for you.”
“I don't desire to keep a great deal of company so that matters little to me,” Marah insisted, keeping her gaze out the window, though she hardly saw the scene before her.
Victoria hesitated before she said, “You may claim that, but I know you too well. I can see you are lonely.”
Marah finally turned and speared Victoria with a look. “Perhaps that is because my grandmother just died.”
She hoped the pointed comment would put Victoria off, but her friend's stare didn't waver, nor did she look chagrined.
“She died six months ago, dearest. Your mourning period has ended in the eyes of Society. No one could begrudge you the desire for new scenery.”
Marah sucked in a breath. Her grandmother had raised her after her mother died in childbirth and her father abandoned her. She was the only love Marah had known in her life.
As if she read her friend's thoughts, Victoria got to her feet and reached out to touch Marah's arm. “I realize you miss her, but I fear her death isn't what is truly keeping you here, sequestered away from the world. I worry about you.”
Marah began to turn away. She didn't want to talk about this, to think about these things, but Victoria's fingers tightened on her wrist to hold her steady.
“Please, Marah, I realize things have been difficult since .Â .Â . well, since you were last in London. But it's time you return to the city and live a little. You
accompany me and stay in our home. With the illness of Justin's father, the family has much reduced its presence in Society, but that will put less pressure on you. And we are still attending many events where you can be gay and regain some of the light in your eyes that I so miss when I look at you now.”
Victoria smiled, and there was a pleading hope in her eyes that touched Marah even if she wished it didn't.