Authors: Christina Brooke
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical romance, #Regency
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To Karen, for the friendship, laughter, and apple crumble
I’d like to thank my editor, Monique Patterson, for her passion for great books and her expertise in helping me bring Beckenham’s story to life. My gratitude also to Holly Blanck (I’ll miss you, Holly!) and Alexandra Sehulster and to everyone at St. Martin’s Press who plays a part in publishing the novels I write.
To my fabulous agent, Helen Breitwieser, thank you for believing in me and my writing and for your friendship, advice, and enthusiasm.
To Anna Campbell, Denise Rossetti, and Victoria Steele, I’m so lucky to have you as friends and colleagues. Thank you for always being there for advice, hugs, and the occasional tough love. And to my dear and talented friends on the Romance Bandits blog, your friendship and support are past price.
Many thanks also to Kim and Gil Castillo for your hard work and attention to detail.
To all the people who read my books and write to tell me how much they enjoy the series (and yes, someday I will tell Lady Arden and Montford’s story!), thank you for going on this journey with me.
Last but by no means least, to Jamie, Allister, Adrian, Ian, Cheryl, Robin, and George, who have to suffer through deadline madness right along with me, I love you. Thank you for always being there for me.
The tendril of hair that nestled in the Earl of Beckenham’s palm was a rare and startling color. The more poetic among her admirers called the shade Titian. But to Beckenham, that seemed too polite a term for such flagrant extravagance. The lone ringlet he held was vermilion shot with gold, a bright corkscrew of flame. Which was appropriate, for its owner was something of a firebrand.
A firebrand who had some explaining to do.
His jaw tightened. His hand closed around the ringlet in a fist. Only one woman in London had tresses this particular shade. His betrothed, Miss Georgiana Black.
The library door opened and she walked in. Her beauty punched him in the solar plexus, just as it always did. A blaze of red hair, expertly coiffed, a glitter of sea green eyes, a luminous glow of pearl white skin.
Her coloring was striking, but no more magnificent than her figure. Miss Georgiana Black had the mouthwateringly sensuous curves any courtesan would give her soul to possess. In a London ballroom, she was as exotic as a bird of paradise among a gaggle of geese.
And she was his.
Yet these days, it seemed he only ever spoke with her to deliver some reprimand or warning. And each time he did, she behaved worse than before. They couldn’t go on like this.
“What is it, Marcus? Couldn’t it wait?” Her voice was low, husky. It seemed to wrap itself around him and stroke.
In contrast to the vividness of her features, she was dressed in white from head to toe. Crystals on her low-cut bodice caught the light as she moved toward him, glistening in concert with the delicate constellation of diamonds at her throat. In a practiced gesture, she flicked out her fan and waved it gently to and fro.
In the middle of the Duke of Montford’s ball, he’d sent for her to join him here in the duke’s library. Doubtless, she was impatient to return to the dancing.
“No, I’m afraid this can’t wait,” he replied. In the morning, he might be stretched out on a patch of frostbitten grass with a pistol ball between his eyes. “I want to ask you something.” Deliberately, he opened his hand, picked the fiery ringlet from his palm, and placed it on the desk between them. “Would you mind telling me how Lord Pearce came by this?”
She stared at it, her hand lifting instinctively to her own coiffure. “But … but that’s
hair. How could he—?” Her fine eyebrows snapped together. “He did not get it from me, that is certain.” She looked up at him sharply. “You think
bestowed a keepsake on that libertine?”
No. Despite the obvious implications, he hadn’t thought it for more than one second.
But he was furious. With himself for reacting to Pearce’s taunts. With Georgie for attracting such insults by her reckless behavior.
In a biting tone, he said, “What other explanation can there be?”
She blinked. “I don’t know. But there must be another one, because I didn’t give it to him.”
Her words were flat, matter-of-fact. They rang with truth. Beckenham wished now that he had not let his temper get the better of him with Pearce. A duel might cause talk, and he needed to avoid providing yet more fodder for gossip about Georgie. He also wished to avoid getting his brains blown out, but that was a separate issue.
“Do you think anyone is going to believe that?” he said.
Her chin lifted. “I don’t care if anyone else believes it, Marcus. Only that you do. It is no one else’s business, after all.”
Air hissed through his teeth as he released a breath. He had to remind himself that she was only eighteen. While her self-possession suggested a lady of more mature years, Georgie retained a sort of schoolgirl naivety. She truly could not see the danger she courted by her flirtatious, headstrong ways.
“Well?” she demanded as if she had the right to feel ill-used. “
you believe me?”
“Yes,” he said. “I do.”
“Then I hope you punched Lord Pearce on the nose for his impertinence,” she said. “And if you didn’t, I shall.”
He had his cousin Lydgate to thank for the fact that he had not succeeded in choking Pearce to death. However, since the dispute would now be settled by a duel, perhaps he ought not to feel so grateful to Lydgate for prying his fingers free of Pearce’s throat. Pearce might not be Beckenham’s equal in brute strength, but he was a crack shot.
“I’ve spoken with your papa,” Beckenham said. “He agrees with me that it will be best for you to retire to the country for a while.” Just until the rumors died down.
“What?” She looked incredulous. “Pearce has concocted some ridiculous untruth about me, and
am banished from Town?”
He hadn’t meant to say this, but the words broke from him. “If you behaved with more propriety, Pearce would not even think to make you the target of such insinuations.”
“What nonsense.” She snapped her fan shut and tossed it onto the desk. “I cannot help it if men are stupid enough to lose their heads over me or make me the object of their crude bets and jokes.”
Her mantrap looks made her susceptible to such behavior; he knew that. It was unfair that she needed to be even more careful than other ladies in her circumstances, but it was a reality. And the truth was, she did not behave as she ought. She took every opportunity to thumb her nose at the arbiters of society. Georgie Black was earning a reputation for being
a term applied to females whose heedless antics were most likely to end in scandal and ruin.
He’d given up trying to make her understand this. Every time he spoke to her on the subject, he merely goaded her to more outrageous exploits.
Which was why he wanted to take her away from London before she embroiled both of them in scandal. He only wished he hadn’t agreed to set the wedding date toward the end of the season.
“Your papa will escort you back to Gloucestershire in the morning,” he said. “I will follow in a day or two. I have … business to attend to here.”
Georgie was a perceptive woman and she caught the slight hesitation. She narrowed her eyes at him. “What business?”
He didn’t answer. She ought to know better than to question him about a matter of honor. Dueling was illegal and certainly not a subject for female ears.
She jabbed a slender finger at him. “
Her eyes, the color of Mediterranean waters, bored into him. Inadvertently, his gaze flicked down to the glinting curl that still lay on Montford’s desk, then back to her face.
Georgie turned white. “You will not meet Pearce over this.”
He didn’t deny it.
Silks rustled as she rushed around the desk to him. “Don’t!” She put her hand on his arm, her eyes wide with fear. “Marcus, you must not give him the satisfaction of rising to the bait. Good Lord, you could be killed.”
Hot currents shot up his arm, set off by the touch of her hand. He wanted, with a fierce longing, to pull her into his arms for one last kiss.
Instead, he made himself pick up her hand, remove it from his sleeve, and release it. “You would have me act the coward.”
“I’d have you act as a man of sense,” she flashed. “As the man I know you to be. You have nothing to prove to the likes of Pearce.”
He realized Georgie’s eyes held the shimmer of tears. He cut his gaze away. “I will have someone send you word of the outcome.”
Her voice shook with passion. “I am not going back to Gloucestershire. And I am certainly not going to let you fight Pearce.”
He turned on her. “Do you think you can lead me around by the nose the way you do all those other poor saps who fawn over you? You will not move me on this, Georgie. I can’t honorably withdraw my challenge. I don’t want to.”
She flung out a hand. “What good is honor when you are wounded, or … or dead?”
“Your faith in me is most heartening,” he said dryly.
“Do you think I want you to kill
and have to flee the country?”
She grew shrill in her agitation. He struggled to maintain his calm. “Georgie, I won’t discuss this further with you. You shouldn’t even know about it.”
“Marcus, you must listen to me.”
She railed at him then, pounding at his chest with her fists. Tears streaked down her alabaster cheeks; her elegant nose turned an unflattering shade of red.
He took it all in stony silence, wished he’d never summoned her here at all.
She clutched at his lapels, raising herself on tiptoe, but the top of her head still only reached his mouth. Between her teeth, she said, “If you don’t call off that duel this minute, our engagement is finished. I mean it, Marcus. I’ll not countenance this folly on my behalf.”
Deep inside, he felt a stabbing pain, as if jagged shards of ice pierced his chest. But he did not give in to blackmail—whether from a scoundrel like Pearce or from the woman he intended to wed.
“So be it,” he said stiffly, removing her grasping hands from his coat, letting them drop. “I’ll inform your father that you are now his sole responsibility. I’ll wish him joy of you, too.”
For a moment she stared at him with a shocked expression. As if he’d slapped her. As if he’d been the one to do the jilting.
Color flooded back into her cheeks. In a low, hard tone that trembled only slightly, she said, “If you die, Marcus, I’ll never forgive you.”
He gave a crack of bitter laughter. “If I die, I’m coming back to haunt