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Authors: The Last Bachelor

Betina Krahn

BOOK: Betina Krahn
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Coming Undone

“Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,” Remington finished aloud.

“I beg your pardon?” she said hoarsely.

“Your buttons … nineteen on a side. That makes a total of thirty-eight. Thirty-eight on one dress … it’s enough to make a man wonder.” He paused and watched her fighting the urge to look at him. She needed a bit more incentive.

“What are you afraid of?” he asked with a low, husky laugh. “That something will get out?” She whirled on him, her eyes flashing.

“Or perhaps you’re afraid something else will get in.” He lowered his head, feeling her allure curling through his blood. “Ah, Antonia. Buttons aren’t much of a barrier if a man is truly determined.”

Tilting her backward as she strained to avoid contact with him, he impulsively picked up the scissors in her lap. She gasped as he opened and slid them around her top button on one side, shearing it off. A heartbeat later, he slid them around a second … a third … and a fourth. It was an outrage, but she couldn’t bring herself to stop it or even to protest it … not when he was so near and her blood was surging against her skin in eagerness for his touch. She couldn’t move, could only watch as her buttons rolled and the top of her bodice began to slide.…

BANTAM BOOKS BY BETINA KRAHN

The Unlikely Angel
The Perfect Mistress
The Last Bachelor
The Mermaid
The Soft Touch
Sweet Talking Man
The Husband Test

For Don
,

the partner of my journey

May He raise you up

on eagles’ wings

Prologue
L    O    N    D    O    N,        1    8    8    2

She lowered her lashes.

He nuzzled her ear.

She sighed.

He smiled.

Nervous.

Eager.

Kisses drifted and laces slid. Modesty reeled, dizzy from the twirl of buttons, and respectability fled as its guardians were peeled away … skirt and bodice, petticoats and bustle, corset and high-button shoes. Hard boning, volumes of lace, flounces of muslin and sateen, and black silk stockings—so many fastenings, hooks, and tapes—with reluctance yielded, revealing tantalizing glimpses of pale flesh at the center of an unfolding blossom of womanliness.

In the glow of the down-turned gaslight, the lovers left garments like puddles on the floor, marking their passage toward a thick feather mattress and bared linen. Sinking one knee into the soft bed, he drew her against him, savoring her sweet hesitation. She ran her tongue over her lip and braced the heels of her palms against his bare chest as his arms encircled her. Her eyes darted toward the door of the rented room, then back to his, searching, uncertain.

“Don’t be concerned, dearest,” he murmured, lifting her hand to his lips. He shot a lidded glance toward the door that seemed to be troubling her and smiled knowingly.
“No one knows of this place … the innkeeper is most discreet. You’re perfectly safe with me here.”

“I trust you with all my heart, my love,” she said on a quivering, indrawn breath. “It is only that … it has been such a long time, and I am so fearful.…”

“Surely not of me, sweetest,” he said, coaxing her averted eyes back to his with a squeeze of her waist. “You must know that I would die before causing you the slightest distress or discomfort.”

“It is not that. I am just so afraid of …” She lowered her lashes and her cheeks filled with becoming color. “My late husband was not a passionate man.”

“Ahhh.” He smiled knowingly and tilted her face toward his once more. “You need not fear, my lovely angel. Your willingness to come to me like this is proof you have given me your heart.” He spread his hand over her chest and gazed heatedly at the erotic bump nudging the fabric just below it. “And if I have your precious heart, what more could I possibly ask?” He slid his fingers onto her thinly veiled breast and closed them over it, wringing a gasp and a shiver from her.

In the throes of the next deep kiss, her eyes fluttered open, tracing his brow with adoring strokes, then closed again. His eyes opened an instant afterward, focusing with satisfaction on the delicate skin and silky blond hair of his partner in passion, then on the linen waiting below.

“Tell me, my darling, that we shall be together like this … always,” she murmured as he pressed her back into the soft bedclothes and slid his chest over hers.

“Always?” he murmured against her throat as he tried to insinuate his knee between her tightly clamped legs. After a slight pause he added the persuasion of: “But of course, my dearest.
Always.
” When those words melted the resistance in her knees, he poured still more into her ear. “Together forever, my angel. From this day forward we
shall find sweet solace in each other’s arms, shall ease each other’s burdens and delight each other’s heart.”

Through a sweet flurry of limbs and covers, as he drew back to dispose of the last of her garments and inhibitions, the sound of voices reached them. At first neither paid much heed; both her chemise and his control were sliding. But the sounds increased and finally intruded on their idyll.

“You are quite sure this is the room?” came a woman’s impassioned tones from just outside the door. Beneath them the innkeeper’s voice rumbled; whether in protest or reassurance, it was impossible to tell. “You, in room two twelve … open this door, immediately!” the woman addressed the pair in the bed. When they did not respond, the heel of a righteous fist was laid to the door. “Open, or I shall be forced to have the innkeeper admit me.”

The lovers lay frozen in horror as the heavy wooden panels vibrated under the sharp raps, the jingle of keys was heard, and metal scraped ominously in the lock. When the door banged back against the wall, the lovers scrambled to pull the bedcovers up around them. The door frame filled with the outline of a feminine figure swathed in black silk and dark veiling.

“Lady Antonia!” the young woman in the bed gasped, and the name hovered on the hush of the chamber.

Lady Antonia surged into the chamber amid rustling skirts, then caught herself back a step, recoiling from the sight of the wayward pair. She turned to the innkeeper, who was loudly professing both indignation and ignorance of all such infamous goings-on in his establishment, and declared in a choked voice, “This is a painful and private matter, sir. I fear we are at the mercy of your discretion.”

When the door closed behind the relieved innkeeper, Lady Antonia turned on the couple in the bed, straightened, and lifted back the heavy veil that shrouded her head
and shoulders. Beneath a broad-brimmed hat, framed in a swirl of black silk, was a strikingly beautiful face set with such fierce determination that its loveliness became secondary. Her youthful, fashionably clad figure was transformed by her outrage into an ageless, towering presence. And at the center of her countenance, light and expressive eyes were sharpened to pale, hot points of emotion.

But whatever feelings the interruption of this tryst had roused in Lady Antonia, shock was certainly not among them. This was not the first—nor would it be the last—time she had encountered such a scandalous scene.

“Camille. How could you stoop to such a thing?” she demanded, clasping her hands tightly to constrain them. “This—after all my efforts on your behalf!”

“Please, let me explain,” the young woman begged in a voice clogged with rising tears.

“Explain? What is there to explain? What has happened is more than plain to anyone with two good eyes.” She waved a black-gloved hand toward Camille’s disheveled hair and the bedcovers behind which she cowered. “You have disgraced yourself and violated my trust in you.”

“Please, Lady Antonia,” Camille pleaded, tears rolling down her fair cheeks as she gripped the bedclothes in whitened fists. “You do not understand. I love Bertrand with all my heart … and he loves me.” She began to sob in earnest and turned to bury her face in her stunned lover’s chest.

The sound of his name and the force of Camille Adams thrusting herself upon him jolted Bertrand Howard—promising young bureaucrat and adamant bachelor—from the haze of disbelief that had insulated him from the spectacle of his own ruination. “See here, Lady Antonia!” he blustered, stiffening and trying desperately to put distance between him and his weeping inamorata. “How dare you burst in upon us like this? You have no right—”

“No right?” Lady Antonia gasped as if struck physically by the fellow’s insolence. “I have every right! When Camille came to my house, a new widow, made destitute by vulturous creditors, I embraced her as if she were a part of my family. I gave her my support and confidence. And she repays me”—she transferred a shriveling glare from the weeping Camille to the half-naked Mr. Howard—“by lifting her petticoats for a high-living rogue who will only despoil and abandon her.”

“I am not a high-living rogue, nor a despoiler and abandoner of women,” he protested, trying without success to get the suddenly boneless Camille to support herself as he edged away from her on the bed.

“Oh? And what did you intend after you had your way with her?” Lady Antonia demanded, watching his retreat from Camille and calling him on it with an accusing finger. “To slink away, that’s what.” At her charge he halted his flight and reddened prodigiously. “You would have gone back to your high-living friends, leaving her ruined and heartbroken.” She looked again at Camille’s quaking shoulders, and her manner softened markedly.

“Our poor, innocent Camille … without a contriving or deceitful bone in her body. And obviously without a prudent one, either.” Her countenance filled with righteous anger once more, and she stalked closer to the bed. “It is clear who is at fault here. Only a callous, loathsome beast would take advantage of a tender-hearted young widow made defenseless by the blows of misfortune.”

The accusation and her disdainful scrutiny combined to send the full impact of his rash pursuit of the delectable young widow crashing down upon Bertrand Howard. His eyes flew wide and his skin caught fire.

“What you have done, sir, is unconscionable,” she continued. “There is nothing to be done, except make it right.”

“M-make it … right?” he said, his muscles contracting
visibly, bracing for the blow he sensed was coming.

“The immorality of your behavior is so flagrant—” She paused and pressed a hand to her temple as if distressed by having to speak of such matters. Recovering, she leveled a stare on him that turned her next words into a scarcely veiled threat. “I needn’t tell you that the foul breath of scandal can topple a promising young career in government every bit as surely as it can ruin a young woman’s reputation. There is only one honorable way to recoup such a hideous situation.” And she announced it with the finality of a magistrate’s gavel sealing a sentence: “You must marry Camille as quickly as it can be arranged.”

Marry.
It echoed about the chamber and in his ears. He looked down into Camille Adams’s tear-rimmed eyes, then up at the implacable bastion of morality who had thrust upon him this reckoning of his carefree and libidinous ways. After a few last futile thoughts of escape—the death throes of his much-prized bachelorhood—he understood there was no other course. He was a gentleman, a man of some connection, a man with a future. He was also caught … like a rat in a trap.

Always.
His own cozening tongue had pronounced his fate. Closing his eyes, he squared his shoulders to accept the punishment being forced upon them by society’s pitiless standards.
Marriage.
He nodded.

Lady Antonia withdrew to the parlor at the end of the hall, to allow the couple to clothe themselves decently. When they emerged from the room, she took charge of Camille immediately, declaring she would send an announcement to
The Times
straight away, and insisting Mr. Howard call on them at her house the following evening to discuss wedding arrangements. He jerked an angry nod and cast the red-eyed Camille a glowering look as they
made their way down a discreet set of back stairs to a cab Lady Antonia had kept waiting.

The husband-to-be shoved his fists deep into his trouser pockets and struck off for his club, churning inside at the thought of his conjugal future.

The bride-to-be watched him anxiously from the window as the cab rumbled off into the darkness, and vowed to make him the best wife in all of London.

And their matchmaker, Lady Antonia, drew her veil down over her glowing face and relaxed back against the leather seat with a small, triumphant smile.

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