Authors: Manda Collins
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For my sister, Jessie. I’m so proud of you I can’t stand it.
As always I’d like to thank my fabulous and insightful editor, Holly Blanck, for her continued awesomeness and patience with my absent-minded artistic ways; my lovely and talented agent extraordinaire, Holly Root; everyone at St. Martin’s Press who works behind the scenes to ensure that my books come out looking gorgeous; my Kiss and Thrill sisters, Amy, Sarah, Diana, Krista, Lena, Gwen, Sharon, and Rachel; Janga, Julianne, Santa, Lindsey, Terri, and the Vano group for continued support; my family; and last but not least, my readers, without whom none of this would be worth it.
“Your Grace,” Lady Isabella Wharton coaxed, from the other side of the Ormonde library, “really, you must put the knife down. Whatever will your grandmama think?”
But the Duke of Ormonde, accustomed to ignoring his family’s dictates, didn’t lower the knife at his wife’s throat. “Who gives a hang what that old bat thinks?” he demanded, his red-rimmed eyes devoid of conscience, his normally handsome visage turned ugly with anger. “She’s the one who made me marry this miserable bitch. And look where that’s gotten me.”
As the miserable bitch in question was Isabella’s younger sister, she could hardly be expected to agree with him. Perdita, the younger daughter of the Earl of Ramsden, had married the young Duke of Ormonde in a ceremony that had rivaled the royal wedding a decade before. Isabella had been hopeful that her sister’s marriage would be successful where hers had failed. Yet here they were now, a few years later, and the groom was threatening the bride with a knife. Hardly the stuff dreams were made of.
“Won’t you let me go, dearest?” Perdita asked, her voice surprisingly calm as she held her chin up higher to escape the prick of the blade. A ringlet of her auburn curls brushed the knife’s edge as she trembled in her husband’s arms. “You know you don’t mean me any harm.”
“Put the knife down, Your Grace,” the fourth member of their mad party, Mrs. Georgina Mowbray, whose husband had also been less than ideal, said, her brisk tone honed through years following the drum. Her petite stature suggested a daintiness that the blonde’s determination belied. “Killing your wife will not make you feel any better.”
The sisters had befriended the army widow when they’d all three been on the same committee for the Ladies Charitable Society to which they belonged. Perdita had come to the meeting with a bruise on her face and a nonsensical story about falling into a door, and Georgie had guessed the truth of the situation at once. When she’d revealed her own history with the celebrated war hero who had been her husband—a history in which the hero had battered his own wife in every possible way before dying in glory on the battlefield—the three women had forged an unshakeable bond.
“She wouldn’t be able to leave me,” the duke said with the twisted logic that only madmen and drunkards could understand. “She was fine before the two of you got hold of her with your lies about me.”
Isabella nearly screamed in frustration. This was her fault. All her fault. Because Perdita could hardly leave her husband—the laws were made by men and, as such, stacked in their own favor when it came to things like wives, who were little more than property in the eyes of the law—the three ladies had thought they might be able to approach the duke in such a way that he would agree to treat Perdita with the dignity she deserved as his wife. The idea was laughable now, of course, but Isabella had not known the extent of the duke’s madness at the time. Her own husband had been a brute, but he’d been fairly easy to understand. Ormonde’s possessive nature coupled with his brutality was far more dangerous than Wharton had ever been, she saw now.
“I would never leave you,” Perdita said, her voice trembling a little as her strength began to flag. “You know I love you.”
Isabella could see her sister was nearing the breaking point. She exchanged a look with Georgie to see if she’d noticed.
Wordlessly Georgie glanced down at her left hand, which held her reticule. With her other hand she formed a pistol with her thumb and forefinger. Oh god, Isabella thought. She’s brought her gun.
When their friend had first informed the sisters that she carried a small pistol with her wherever she went, they’d been both fascinated and slightly frightened. Neither of them had ever had anything to do with firearms. Their father had hunted of course. As did their husbands. But it was hardly something that the sisters had been interested in. To Isabella’s mind it was rather revolting to think of animals chased and killed solely for sport. But Georgie had been matter-of-fact about the weapon. Following the army, she’d often found herself in situations where her safety was in question. The pistol was a practical means of ensuring that safety. Her father, also an army man, had taught Georgie how to use it, and when she’d married he’d given her the ladies’ weapon as a gift. Fortunately for Perdita, Georgie had come for their meeting with Ormonde today ready to ensure all of their safety.
Swallowing, Isabella realized that if Georgie was to get the gun out of her reticule, she’d need to distract Ormonde’s attention away from her.
“Ormonde,” she began; then, deciding that she might need to seem more familiar, she used his given name. “Gervase, we aren’t here to take Perdita away from you. We simply wish for you to perhaps be a bit gentler with her.”
“Why?” the duke demanded, his eyes suspicious. “She’s not gentle with me. She scratched my face earlier. Damn her.” He gripped Perdita tighter, and she whimpered.
The nail marks on his cheek bore testament to his tale, but like any abuser he saw the failing as hers, not his, conveniently forgetting that he’d been trying to rape her at the time. Isabella knew that if she and Georgie didn’t get her sister out of his arms and out of his house soon, he would do worse still.
Needing to make him loosen his grip, she decided to improvise. “You should be gentle with her because she might be carrying the next Duke of Ormonde.” It wasn’t true. Not that she knew of anyway, but since one of the failings that Ormonde laid at Perdita’s door was her failure to give him an heir, Isabella guessed that he might be convinced to let her go if he thought he might be endangering his child.
She risked stepping forward as she watched the revelation sink in. “There, now,” she said, “you don’t wish to harm your heir, do you?”
But she’d miscalculated. Rather than being transported with joy, Ormonde instead became angry. “What? Is this true?” he asked, turning Perdita in his arms so that he could look her in the face. “You lied to me?” he demanded, the knife trapped between Perdita’s arm and Ormonde’s fist while he began to shake her. “You lying bitch! You told me it wasn’t possible!” he cried.
“No!” Isabella shouted, rushing forward to pull him away from her sister. “Stop it! Stop it!”
Then several things happened at once.
Surprised by the deadweight of Isabella on his back, Ormonde let go of Perdita and stumbled backward, taking Isabella with him.
Georgie, realizing that she had a clear shot at last, slipped out her pistol and took aim. The shot hit the duke in the shoulder.
At almost the same time, the knife, which had been held between Perdita’s body and Ormonde’s hand, fell to the floor, followed close behind by the duke, who had been thrown off balance by Isabella’s death grip.
Thus it was that the sixth Duke of Ormonde, husband of Perdita, brother-in-law of Lady Isabella Wharton, and of no particular relation to Mrs. Georgina Mowbray, came to be both stabbed and shot.
Though a duke, he was but human. No one was ever quite sure which wound was the fatal one.
But he was dead, nonetheless.
One year later
“You cannot simply insist I travel to the wilds of Yorkshire to fetch your errant grandson, Godmama,” Lady Isabella Wharton said with a nervous laugh. “It is the height of the season. I have social obligations.”
“Yes,” the Dowager Duchess of Ormonde said acerbically, “you are no doubt expected at one of Lucifer Dinsmore’s gatherings where the ladies dampen their petticoats and the gentlemen wear Roman togas.”
“That was one party, Godmama,” Isabella protested. “And the gentlemen wore robes like the Hellfire Club. Not togas.”
With her dark auburn hair, her voluptuous figure, and an exquisite sense of style, Isabella was in demand among the more liberal-minded hostesses of the
She was always to be counted upon to add intrigue to an evening’s entertainment. The fact that she was a widow whose husband had died famously in a duel only added to her mystique.
“That is beside the point, Bella,” the dowager huffed, “and you well know it. Your social schedule is filled with frivolity and scandal and little else. It will do you good to get away from the scoundrels and rakes who buzz around you like so many bees. Yorkshire is lovely this time of year.”
If the old woman had been there at all, Isabella would eat her hat.
“Then why do you not go there to persuade the new duke yourself?” Isabella asked peevishly. It was just like her godmother to pawn off such an unpleasant task on her. She’d always disapproved of Isabella and her popularity.
“Because the boy will refuse to see me!” the duchess said, thumping her ebony walking stick on the floor for emphasis. “He must be made to see his duty to the family. And as he will not see me, then he will need to be persuaded by someone else. Someone with the ability to wrap young men about her little finger.”
Isabella choked on her tea. “You mean me to seduce him into coming to London?” It was true that she had a way with gentlemen, but as her marriage proved, she was not a miracle worker. If the duke wished to remain in Yorkshire rather than come to London and take up his role as head of the family, then she had no great faith in her power to persuade him otherwise. Besides, as her sister and Georgina Mowbray could attest, Isabella had a poor record when it came to persuading Dukes of Ormonde to do what she wished.
“Don’t be absurd,” the old woman said, waving a beringed hand in dismissal. “I mean for you to cast a few lures. That hardly constitutes seduction. He must be bored silly with the provincial women of York.”
Isabella bit back a sigh. Since receiving the heavily embossed notecard earlier in the week she’d been dreading this encounter with her godmother. It wasn’t that Isabella was not fond of the old girl. The duchess had served as a surrogate parent to Isabella and her sister, Perdita, since their mother’s death when they were children. Their father, being a typical gentleman of his class, was not up to the task.
And when the dowager’s other grandson, Gervase, also a duke, had fallen in love with Perdita on sight, and their subsequent marriage made both sisters true members of the Ormonde family, they’d all been pleased as punch. The duke’s bad treatment of Perdita, which the dowager still denied even after his death during an attack on his wife, had soured Isabella’s relationship with the matriarch. And she was hardly in a position to take orders from her anymore. She was a grown woman and had endured her own abusive marriage for long enough to appreciate her freedom to such a degree that she resented anyone—especially someone who called her sister a liar—who tried to curb it.
“Perhaps the new duke has his reasons for refusing to come to London,” Isabella said mildly. She had said her peace about the late duke to the dowager. She knew there was nothing she could say to sway the old woman’s opinion and she’d decided to stop trying. She had come here today as a courtesy, but the dowager’s attempt to manipulate her was tiresome. “You did, after all, cut off his father without a cent. That has a way of dampening one’s familial feelings.”