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Authors: Sabrina Jeffries

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

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BOOK: The French Maid
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Oh, Lord. She didn’t belong here.

Could Pierce be right? Could the duke have invited her because he felt bad about Roger’s death? No, that made no sense. He hadn’t even attended the funeral.

Still, what other reason could there be for the invitation? The race ball at Marsbury was an exclusive affair, and although Poppy
was
the third son of an earl, he’d spent more of his life riding over battlefields than at fine parties like this. Having never had a formal debut, she wasn’t exactly high society, either.

When they entered the ballroom, Pierce guided her to a secluded corner so they could catch their bearings. Done all in gold and cream with gaslit chandeliers, the ballroom held a warm glow that made her heart race with anticipation. What if she
did
meet someone here tonight? Wouldn’t that be lovely?

After all, she wouldn’t
mind
finding a husband, though she feared that her requirements were unreasonable. The man would have to be willing to live at Waverly Farm until Poppy died, he’d need his own fortune, and he’d have to overlook the fact that she meant to race Lord Gabriel. All of which was a tall order.

Suddenly Pierce’s face tightened, and he bent to murmur, “Don’t look now, but Sharpe himself is leaning against that pillar over there.”

She looked at once, of course, then wished she hadn’t. Because Lord Gabriel Sharpe’s appearance had materially altered since the last time she’d seen him.

When she’d challenged him at Turnham Green, she’d been blinded by rage, and he’d been covered in dust from the race he’d just won against Lieutenant Chetwin. Tonight, however, he looked every inch the Angel of Death.

Oh, how she hated that nickname! People had given it to him after Roger’s death, and he did everything to reinforce it. He dressed entirely in black, down to his shirt and cravat, which were said to be specially dyed for him. He’d even painted his phaeton black and fitted it out with a matched pair of coal-black horses.

Angel of Death, indeed. He was using the tragic race against Roger to enhance his reputation as a fearless driver. He ought to cower in shame in a remote corner of his family’s estate—not take on every fool who demanded that he race him. How dared he strut about society without a care in the world? How dared he
look
so much like an Angel of Death?

Not just the death part, either. Grudgingly, she admitted that aside from his clothes, he was the very image of an angel. His gold-streaked brown hair looked as if the sun had run its fingers through its waves. And his face was like something sculpted by Michelangelo—a classic nose, a full Italian mouth, and a stubborn chin. Though she couldn’t see his eyes just now, she’d observed their color before—a mossy green with brown flecks that reminded her of secret forest glades.

She snorted. She must be mad. His eyes were those of the man who’d killed her brother. She’d only noticed him because she hated him so thoroughly that it seemed an outrage for him to be that sinfully attractive. That was the only reason.

“You’re staring,” Pierce muttered under his breath.

Oh, Lord, she was. How
dared
Lord Gabriel get her to stare at him?

“Come, let’s dance.” Pierce offered her his arm.

She took it, grateful to be saved from herself. Then, as they joined a long line of dancers, she saw Lord Gabriel catch sight of her. His gaze widened, then slid down her figure with rude interest.

And the last thing she saw, as Pierce whirled her into the dance, was the curst Angel of Death look straight into her eyes and smile.

L
ORD
G
ABRIEL
S
HARPE
watched as Miss Virginia Waverly danced down the length of the hall with the Earl of Devonmont. Thank God she had come. If he’d had to endure an entire blasted ball without accomplishing his purpose, he’d have blown his brains out.

Fortunately, he was well prepared for her appearance here. Jackson Pinter, the Bow Street runner helping his siblings look into the deaths of their parents, had discovered a great deal of sobering information about Miss Waverly. And Gabe meant to use it to his advantage.

“There goes your nemesis,” said Maximilián Cale, the Duke of Lyons.

Lyons was a fellow Jockey Club member and Gabe’s closest friend. He had a stable of Thoroughbreds that Gabe envied, one of which had won the Derby twice and another that had won the Royal Ascot. Gabe had brought the progeny of the latter horse last month, after he’d scraped together enough money from his wager winnings to afford it.

“Miss Waverly hardly qualifies as a nemesis,” Gabe said dryly.

Lyons snorted. “Has she renewed her challenge to you yet?”

“She hasn’t had the chance,” Gabe said, feigning nonchalance. That damned challenge had been bandied about society ever since Turnham Green, and tonight he meant to put an end to it.

“Surely she won’t.” Lyons sipped his wine. “She can’t possibly be as hotheaded as her brother.”

Gabe stiffened. Seven years, and he still couldn’t forget the sight of Roger lying twisted in the grass, his neck broken. If only …

But “if onlys” was for priests and philosophers. Gabe was seeking neither absolution nor understanding; he couldn’t change what had happened.

But perhaps he could assuage the dire results, now that he knew about them. “I suspect that Miss Waverly is not only hotheaded, but stubborn.” Gabe followed her with his eyes as Devonmont led her down the narrow row. “She came here tonight, didn’t she? She had to guess I might be here.”

“If she mentions the challenge again, will you accept it?”

“No.” He was done with running that course in Turn-ham Green.

Lyons smirked at him. “Afraid that the chit will beat you?”

Gabe knew better than to rise to the bait. “More afraid that she’ll run her rig over my best team of horses.”

“They say she beat Letty Lade. That’s no small feat.”

He snorted. “Letty Lade was nearly seventy by then; it’s a miracle the woman didn’t fall off her perch. Leave Miss Waverly to me. After tonight, there will be no more talk of a race.”

“What do you mean to do?”

“I intend to marry her,” Gabe said.

What else could he do? Clearly her grandfather over-indulged her, and that scoundrel Devonmont probably encouraged her for his own amusement. Miss Waverly needed a man to take her in hand. And since he was partly to blame for her present situation, he’d be the one to do it. In the process, he could solve his own problem.

Lyons gaped at him. “Marry her? Why the hell would you do that?”

Gabe shrugged. “Gran is demanding that my siblings and I marry, and Miss Waverly needs a husband. Why shouldn’t it be me?”

“Because she blames you for Roger’s death?”

Gabe forced a smile. “Once she realizes that what happened with Roger was truly just an accident …”

He trailed off, bits of memory plaguing him. Roger rousting him out of bed for the race. Lyons looking green about the gills as they arrived at the course. Gabe’s blood running high as he approached the boulders …

An uncharacteristic anger boiled up in him, and he tamped it down with effort. He didn’t generally get angry. Long ago, he’d buried his emotions in a grave so deep that they could never be unearthed.

Or so he’d thought. Ever since Miss Waverly’s challenge, he’d been volatile, prone to irrational bouts of fury. It made no sense. How could one stupid challenge churn up the cold ground inside him? And yet it had. Everything seemed to tax his temper.

But tonight he must hold his anger in check, or he’d never succeed in his plans. So he fought his emotions back into the grave that felt shallower by the day.

“Why not find someone more compliant to marry?” Lyons asked.

Because her lack of compliance oddly attracted Gabe. Since he had to marry, he didn’t want some placid, toadying society chit. He wanted a wife with spirit. Who had more spirit than a woman brave enough to publicly challenge a man to a race?

Besides, after everything he’d heard about Miss Waverly and the sad life she’d been leading, he couldn’t let that situation continue. Not that he could tell Lyons that; the duke wouldn’t understand that he was only doing what was right.

He put on his usual grin. “You know me. I always like a challenge.”

Looking unconvinced, Lyons sipped his wine. “So it wasn’t your grandmother’s idea for you to marry Roger’s sister?”

“Gran didn’t specify whom we marry, just that we all do so—or none of us will inherit. And by the way, that’s not common knowledge, so I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself.”

“I suppose Miss Waverly wouldn’t
like
hearing that she’s the key to your gaining your inheritance. But do you need the money that badly? Oliver seems to have the estate well in hand, Jarret convinced your grandmother to give him the brewery anyway, and Minerva now has a husband who can afford to give her whatever she wants. Surely you can rely on them to lend you money if you run short.”

“It’s not that.” Given more time, he hoped to support himself on his own anyway. “I’m worried about Celia.”

“Ah, yes. I forgot about her.”

Gabe glanced over to where his sister was dancing with some foreigner twice her age and looking decidedly annoyed. She’d told Gabe only last week that she had no intention of marrying as long as Gabe stayed unmarried.
We two should hold firm
, she’d said,
and Gran will have to give in. She’s got three of us paired off— that should satisfy her.

Gabe gritted his teeth. Gran wouldn’t be satisfied until she had the entire family marching in step to her tune. And as long as he refused to marry, Celia could blame
him
for the fact that they were all disinherited.

But then she would be the one to suffer. While he was putting his plans for financial independence into place, she would be shuffled from relation to relation. She said she didn’t need or want a man, but with no dowry to compensate for the weight of the family scandal on her marital prospects, she’d have no choice but to become a spinster.

He refused to be responsible for that. If Celia still wouldn’t marry after Gabe got himself leg-shackled, at least she couldn’t blame
him
.

“I don’t suppose you’re looking for a wife,” Gabe said hopefully.

Lyons eyed him askance. “Your lovely sister? I’m not sure I
want
a wife who can shoot me dead at twenty paces.”

Gabe smiled ruefully. “That seems to be the objection most men have to Celia.”

And given Lyons’s family background, he would have more of an objection than most.

Lyons glanced over at Miss Waverly, who was sashaying into a turn. “I suppose she’s pretty enough. A bit underendowed, though.”

Underendowed? Hardly. But then, Gabe had never been attracted to women with bosoms like overstuffed chair cushions. Made them look unbalanced. He liked breasts he could take in his mouth without feeling smothered.

He’d wager Miss Waverly had fine little breasts beneath that martial gown … and a shapely little derrière to match. In fact, she was damned near close to perfect. Taller than the average female, with a trim figure that bespoke hours of walking and riding.

Then there was her beautiful hair, glossy black and swept up into some arrangement of feathers and plaid ribbons and dangling ringlets that made a man itch to take it down. And her face, too—allpert and pretty, from her saucy chin to her high, aristocratic brow. Not to mention her eyes. A man could wander for days in the depths of those cool lakes.

Lyons drained his wineglass and placed it on the tray of a passing footman. “Her hatred of you will be a serious obstacle to winning her. Especially since you’re not good with women.”

“What? Of course I’m good with women.”

“I don’t mean the doxies and merry widows who pursue you because you’re the Angel of Death. You don’t have to do anything to get
them
to like you—they just want to see if you’re as dangerous in bed as you are on the race course.” Lyons glanced back at Miss Waverly. “But she is a respectable woman, and they require finesse. You have to be able to do more than bed them. You have to be able to talk to them.”

Gabe snorted. “I can talk to women perfectly well.”

“About anything other than horses? Or how lovely they look naked?”

“I know how to turn a woman up sweet.” The dance ended, and Gabe saw Devonmont leading Miss Waverly from the floor. When the orchestra struck up a waltz, Gabe arched an eyebrow at Lyons. “Ten pounds says I can get her to dance the waltz with me.”

“Make it twenty, and you’re on.”

With a grin, Gabe sauntered off toward Miss Waverly. Devonmont was headed for the punch table. Good. That should make things easier.

As he approached her another man also did so, but Gabe took care of that with one warning glance. The man paled, then headed in the other direction.

There were definite advantages to being the Angel of Death.

She seemed oblivious to what had just happened.

Tapping her foot to the music, she stared bright-eyed at the couples taking the floor. Clearly, she was eager to dance again. This shouldn’t be too hard.

Gabe made a wide circuit so he could come up behind her. “Good evening, Miss Waverly.”

She stiffened, refusing to look at him. “I’m surprised to see you at such a dull diversion, Lord Gabriel.
My late brother
always said you disliked balls. Not enough danger, I suppose, and few opportunities to create mayhem.”

He ignored her emphasis. “Every man needs the occasional break from mayhem. And although I dislike the insipid punch, insincere smiles, and inevitable gossip, I enjoy the dancing. I’d be pleased if you gave me the honor of the next one.”

A sharp breath escaped her, and she finally turned to fix him with a cold gaze. “I would rather immerse myself in a vat of leeches.”

The vivid image made him bite back a smile.

“Thank God.” When she blinked at him, he added, “I was worried you might accept, and then we’d have to discuss that racing nonsense.”

He turned as if to walk away, and she said, “Wait!”

BOOK: The French Maid
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