Once upon a time, a rich, grumpy old man sat down with quill and paper and changed the lives of his female descendants forever … .
“I, Sir Hamish Pickering, being of sound mind but ailing body, do make my last will and testament.
“I’ve climbed as high as a man can, despite having twice the brains, wisdom and fortitude of the layabout aristocracy. Yet, a woman can wed as high as her looks will let her, up to a duchess if she may.
“There, my own daughters have failed me miserably. Morag and Finella, I spent money on you so that you could marry higher but you weren’t up to snuff. You expected the world to be handed to you. If any female of this family wants another farthing of my money, she’d best set herself to earn it.
“Therefore, I declare that the entirety of my fortune be kept back from my useless daughters and be held in trust for the granddaughter or great-granddaughter who weds a duke of England or weds a man who then becomes a duke through inheritance, at which time the trust will be released to her and only her.
“If she has any sisters or female cousins who fail, they may each have a lifetime income of fifteen pounds a year. If she has any brothers or male cousins,
though the family does tend to run to daughters, more’s the pity, they will receive five pounds apiece, for that’s all I had in my pocket when I came to London. Any Scotsman worth his haggis can turn five pounds into five hundred in a few years’ time.
“A set amount will be given each girl as she makes her debut in Society, for gowns and whatnot.
“Should three generations of Pickering girls fail, I wash me hands of the lot of you. The entire fifteen thousand pounds will go to pay the fines and hardships of those who defy the excise man to export that fine Scots whisky which has been my only solace in this family of dolts. If your poor sainted mother could only see you now.
Sir Hamish Pickering
B.R. Stickley, A.M. Wolfe
Solicitor’s firm of Stickley & Wolfe”
So reads the will of Sir Pickering. Now his granddaughters Phoebe, Deirdre and Sophie have come to London to try their hand at winning the prize.
Phoebe, the kind-hearted vicar’s daughter with a past, has already lost—and won. By choosing the penniless bastard half-brother of the man who could have been her duke, she walked away from the Pickering fortune with a smile. Rafe, her once rakish, now devoted, husband, has taken her away on their honeymoon—a gift from Rafe’s jilted brother, the Marquis of Brookhaven. Their future is bright with love, if not with gold.
Now only the beautiful, Society-bred Deirdre and
the plain, bookish Sophie remain in the game. The Marquis of Brookhaven, soon to be the Duke of Brookmoor, is still up for grabs … but not for long, if Miss Deirdre Cantor has anything to say about it.
“The Beast of Brookhaven sets another bride to fleeing! Left him at the altar this very morning!”
Calder Marbrook, Marquis of Brookhaven, froze in his tracks at the newsboy’s cant. Since that left him poised in the center of a very busy London street with an ale cart bearing down upon him, it was perhaps not the best moment for him to hear his life story brayed to the public at large.
The driver of the cart cried out a warning, causing Calder’s body to react, if not his thoughts. After flinging himself to safety on the other side of the street, he ignored the carter’s curses trailing on the breeze and searched the crowd for the voice he’d heard.
“Read all about the Beast! The Voice of Society says ’e can’t keep his women from running off!”
The newsboy, who was actually a rather wizened fellow whose voice quavered slightly on the up notes, took Calder’s coin and passed him a newssheet without a pause in his oratory. “The Beast of Brookhaven strikes again!”
Then the fellow’s gaze flicked upward over Calder’s face, then back down to the sketch of a brooding visage on the front page in his hand.
“Oy!” He peered up into Calder’s face. “It’s you,
ain’t it?” The man’s momentary excitement faded before Calder’s grim gaze. He tugged at his cap hurriedly. “Er … good day, milord!”
Calder ignored the man’s flight in favor of flipping the folded newssheet open. He began to read as he stood there, a solid, black-clad man-boulder, letting the river of London humanity swirl unnoticed around him.
“The Beast of Brookhaven … Can it be denied that all his wealth and rank have never been enough? … One must wonder at the mysterious cause of that tragic accident that left him a widower five years ago … lovely Lady Brookhaven’s untimely demise … Has it happened again? … Has another young flower of England decided to flee something dark and unnatural, despite the Beast’s more obvious attractions?”
The rest was lost, crushed into Calder’s tightening fists. Old pain flared, searing fresh scars newly formed. It was incredible how much the insinuations hurt. It was nothing but gossip, thinly flavored with half-facts.
True, this morning he had given to Rafe the woman he’d chosen for his own in a rather unorthodox ceremony in which he himself had reluctantly played the part of the groom. It seemed Society was going to have something to say about how he and his brother had thwarted its expectations with a proxy marriage.
He’d mistakenly believed that with Rafe and Phoebe, the disputed fiancée, safely off on the honeymoon he’d originally arranged for himself, Calder could simply lock himself behind the intimidating grand door of Brook House and hear no more than he chose to hear.
The paper was thin and the fresh ink still smeared in his hands. It was only cheap fodder for the masses,
small news for small minds … yet still his chest ached and his breath felt like fire.
Thirty-four years of impeccable existence, of living by the highest standards of honor and decency—save for one mistake, one moment in an otherwise blameless life, and hadn’t he done his damnedest to make up for that error?—all wiped away by the blithe hand of this self-proclaimed Voice of Society!
He became aware of the passing throng and the way their eyes slid over him in speculation … or was it suspicion? Had they already read this alleged news? Was this morning’s wedding already being discussed and dissected by the multitudes? Was his late wife’s demise being chewed upon like gristle, the truth spat out again, mangled and twisted and unrecognizable?
All around him, eyes, everyone staring, judging, doubting, sneering …
No, it isn’t true,
he wanted to shout at them.
It wasn’t like that. Not then and not now.
Except, unfortunately, that it was.
He’d changed since then. He’d made the decision never to lose command of himself again, for it had been a breakdown of his well-honed control that had been a precipitating factor in his first wife’s, Melinda’s, death five years ago.
He remembered that overwhelming sense of betrayal and enraged possessiveness which had gripped him in those dark days, but only as a memory of a memory, like the second act of a play he’d seen long ago.
This morning’s loss, on the other hand, still burned like a Chinese rocket in Calder’s gut. Years ago Melinda had turned from him, looking for someone more exciting, more romantic. Today, so had Phoebe.
While Society hadn’t known the true story about Melinda, it had been bad enough being seen as the stoic and pitiable widower who couldn’t keep his bride interested. The world had known nothing of the damage Calder had done to himself and to those he cared most about.
Of course, such a blessing had not lasted before the onslaught of the newest delicious scandal. So soon the tide of public opinion turned. “The Beast of Brookhaven sends yet another bride fleeing into the arms of another man …”
The facade of Brook House loomed before him. Had he walked so far while deep in thought? His butler, Fortescue, appeared in the doorway. “Good afternoon, my lord.” Then, as he took Calder’s hat and gloves, “Miss Cantor wishes to speak to you. She is waiting in the front parlor.”
Calder blinked. He’d forgotten—Phoebe’s cousins and aunt still resided in Brook House. Originally invited to stay until the wedding only, Lady Tessa and her two other charges no doubt intended to plead their case to remain his guests indefinitely.
Not if he could bloody well help it! Oh, Miss Sophie Blake hardly made a ripple on the surface of Calder’s consciousness, for she was a shy, retiring creature.
Phoebe’s other cousin, Miss Deirdre Cantor, was highly decorative and passably witty—but she unfortunately came with that screeching harpy of a stepmother attached. Calder longed to permanently rid himself of Lady Tessa with the misty desire of a man in Hell yearning for a cool glass of water.
So Miss Deirdre Cantor wished to speak to him …
Picturing the blond, sapphire-eyed beauty, Calder
decided that his wounded pride wouldn’t suffer from a bit of female attention—even if it was only to beg his hospitality. Deirdre truly was a sight to look upon, with a delightful figure and a classic grace that reminded Calder of a Greek statue.
At any rate, it was better than standing here with “the Beast of Brookhaven” ringing through his mind!
MISS DEIRDRE CANTOR waited in the marquis’s parlor, gazing raptly at the portrait over the mantel. It was of Lord Brookhaven’s father—and a good thing, for what sort of man would hang his own portrait to look at day after day!—but there was enough of a resemblance that it might have been a glimpse of the future.
Like his father, Lord Brookhaven was a handsome fellow. Broad of shoulder and dark of hair and eye—the very picture of the brooding lord of the manor in those novels her stepmother didn’t know she had read.
If only he would smile once in a while, he would be quite desperately attractive, if one liked the iron-jawed, tanned sort with alarmingly intense eyes.
Which Deirdre did in general, and this man in particular. Most women preferred the sleekly clad languid young men in Society—the sort who even now flocked to Deirdre’s side, wanted or not—but Brookhaven had caught her eye years ago.
Over the man in the portrait, she painted Brookhaven the way she’d first seen him, when Tessa had taken her to watch the inquest into Lady Brookhaven’s death, public sport that it was. Deirdre would never forget Lord Brookhaven’s proud, haughty square-shouldered form and his forsaken eyes and his—
Oh, never mind his flat, hard stomach or his riding-toned buttocks! Get your thoughts together, Dee!—
She’d been instantly captivated. Then, devastated by his wife’s death, withdrawn from Society’s syrupy pity, he’d disappeared from her sight almost as soon as she’d discovered him.
She’d read every article in every newssheet left lying about by the careless Tessa. She’d gazed with fascination at the brooding profile sketched again and again by artists brave and enduring enough to lie in wait outside Brook House for a chance to spot the suddenly reclusive lord.
She still had every one of those sketches pressed into a book. Of course, she’d been only sixteen then—sixteen to his thirty years, an eternal division. She hadn’t let that discourage her, however. Most people looked no further than the face and body she’d been born with, so they didn’t realize she possessed a bottomless well of patience and determination.
That was fine with her. Being underestimated was entirely useful in her position, that of Tessa’s captive stepdaughter, kept caged and ready in case of future usefulness.
She’d waited to grow up. She’d waited to enter Society until he reappeared. She’d waited for him to decide to wed again. She’d waited through those endless painful weeks when she’d believed Phoebe would go through with the marriage …
But Phoebe hadn’t. Now, Miss Deirdre Cantor didn’t intend to wait one moment longer.
Logic and efficiency were the tacks to take—while looking as demurely undeniable as she possibly could. She reached up to the neckline of her day gown and gave it a quick wriggling yank as she inhaled greatly. It
was a move she could do in a blink of an eye and which never failed to elicit a gleam of appreciation in men of all ages.
She smiled grimly at using Tessa’s teachings at such a time, but she
Brookhaven to listen to her, and everyone knew that men listened better to an attractive decolletage.
The door opened behind her.
Here I go
She turned gracefully and subtly inhaled, with a demurely pleased smile on her face. “My lord, I—”
Brookhaven loomed in the doorway, pausing in the shadow even as she stood in the light—which she had planned to best set off her golden hair—and for a startling moment Deirdre felt a stab of real misgiving.
This is not the sort of man to appreciate being toyed with. This man can be dangerous when riled.
Deirdre had a flash of hesitation. Five years ago on the road just outside of London, the late Marchioness of Brookhaven had died horribly, broken like a discarded doll in a terrible carriage accident. At the time, no one had breathed a word of suspicion of the man before her—but perhaps no one had dared.
This man had the power to make the world turn on its axis.
Or in her case, make it stop.
Her mind flashed a memory of this very morning, sitting in the church, watching Brookhaven stand at the altar with Phoebe saying the vows in a voice so low that Deirdre couldn’t hear, though she strained to. The pain had been fierce, burning hot behind her eyes and threatening to sap the steel from her spine.
Then, when Lord Marbrook had stumbled in, filthy and starving and hollow-eyed, pleading Phoebe to stop
the ceremony—and it had become clear that Brookhaven was
marrying Phoebe at all—
Deirdre’s breathless, giddy relief at that moment had made one thing perfectly clear. This opportunity was not to be missed.
She had to have this man for her very own.