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Authors: Olivia Drake

His Wicked Wish

BOOK: His Wicked Wish
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Chapter 1

Upon entering Lady Milford's London town house for the first time in ten years, Nathan Atwood had no notion that his aversion to marriage was about to undergo a dramatic reversal.

Rainwater dripped from his wet garments onto the marble floor of the foyer. A puddle formed around his black boots. As he tossed his cloak and hat to the butler, a gust of wind rattled the night-darkened windows on either side of the door.

Nate rubbed his cold hands together. “Good evening, Hargrove. I see you're still alive and kicking after all these years.”

Expressionless as ever, Hargrove transferred Nate's sodden apparel to the arms of a footman, who bore the items away down a corridor. The white-haired butler surveyed Nate's outmoded garb and, in particular, the too long dark hair held back by a thin leather ribbon. His upper lip curled ever so slightly. “It would have been wise to send a note, instead of appearing like a drowned rat on her ladyship's doorstep.”

The hint of censure on those battered features tickled Nate's fancy. He had forgotten the enjoyment of coaxing a reaction from that deadpan visage. Lady Milford's butler had never approved of him, not even when Nate had been a dashing young libertine arrayed in the latest fashion. “This early spring rain is trifling compared to the typhoons of the Far East. Now, I've just arrived back in England and I should like to see my godmother at once. Is she in?”

“Her ladyship has a prior engagement. You may pen a message if you like.”

Nate ignored the man's gesture to proceed into an antechamber flanked by green marble pillars. “For pity's sake, I've traveled here all the way from China. Go and ask her if she'll spare a few moments for her godson.”

The butler thinned his lips. “It would be best to return on the morrow. I'm sure she will clear a slot on her calendar—”

“That won't be necessary, Hargrove.” The feminine voice floated down from the top of the staircase. “Do send him up at once.”

Nate looked up to see an elegant woman standing at the first-floor balcony. A pale violet gown hugged her slim form, and her styled hair appeared as pitch-black as ever, with nary a line on the classic oval of her face. Lady Milford had to be above fifty years of age, yet she looked as eternally youthful as if she'd been wrapped in the finest tissue for the past decade.

Despite the gravity of his purpose, he couldn't stop a genuine smile. He hadn't realized until this moment how much he'd missed Lady Milford. She had always been a safe port for him in the tempest of his parents' marriage. And more of a steadfast influence in his childhood than his own frivolous mother.

Now, Nate had many questions for her that needed answering. Specifically, in regard to the letter she'd sent him over a year ago. It had taken eight months to reach him in Shanghai, then another five months for him to finish several crucial business transactions and then make the long voyage back to England.

He bounded up the staircase, taking the marble steps two at a time. Reaching the top, he caught Lady Milford in a warm embrace, inhaling the familiar scent of lilacs as he planted a kiss on her smooth cheek. “You haven't aged a whit, Godmother. You're lovelier than ever.”

She laughed away the extravagant compliment. “And
you
are still the rogue, my dear Nathan. You should have warned me of your call. I'm due to leave for the theater in half an hour.”

“Forgive me. I came straight from the docks.” As she glanced at the untidy state of his garb, he added, “Alas, there are no proper English tailors where I've been living.”

One slender eyebrow arched. “Why, India is quite civilized these days. Surely there must be many tailors in Bombay.”

“Bombay was only my mail drop. Correspondence had to be forwarded to me in China.”

“China!”

“I've been living there for the past two years. Trade is beginning to open up more to the Europeans. It's a treasure trove of tea and silks and gemstones.”

“Have you made your fortune, then? I always thought you would.”

“That and more. In truth, I'm hoping to open an import office here in London.”

“That
is
good news! Perhaps it will bring you home more often.” She tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. “Do come into my sitting room, Nathan. You've time enough for a drink while you tell me about your travels.”

As they strolled along a carpeted corridor and into a rose and yellow room at the rear of the house, he related some of the more unusual sights he'd seen: tall temples called pagodas that were home to Buddhist priests, black-and-white bears that ate only bamboo leaves, and exotically robed merchants who spoke little English yet were shrewd at bartering.

Lady Milford seated herself on a rose-striped chair while he went to a side table to fill a tumbler of brandy from a cut-glass carafe. When he offered it to her, she shook her head.

Her solemn violet eyes studied him. “Enough chitchat,” she said. “I presume it isn't only business that has lured you back to England. It's also the sad news conveyed in my letter.”

His fingers gripped the glass. He could feel the imprint of the cut crystal against his skin. “Yes.”

“Pray allow me to say that I'm so very sorry for what has happened. A letter is hardly the ideal way to convey a death in the family.”

Nate took a drink from his glass and let it burn down his throat. So it was true. His father was dead. He expected to feel a rush of triumph, but his chest felt devoid of emotion. “Quite so.”

“If you came straight here from the docks, then you haven't yet called at Gilmore House,” she observed. “Why?”

How could he explain his reluctance to visit the place where he'd grown up as the second son of the Earl of Gilmore? After all, his father no longer held sway over the family. The tyrant was gone now. Nate had learned the news from Lady Milford's letter:

With great sorrow, I must inform you that your father lies on his deathbed. The smallpox has weakened his heart and the doctors have little hope of his recovery. My dear Nathan, although I can't pretend to know the nature of your quarrel with Gilmore, I do understand your desire to make your own way in the world. Yet, as your godmother, I dare say that you have been parted from your brother and sister for long enough …

Walking to the night-darkened window, he took another swallow of brandy. The Earl of Gilmore—dead. It was still hard to believe it. The man had been a harsh, godlike despot who had singled out Nate as the target of his vitriol. He had been the bane of Nate's childhood.

By nature, his elder brother, David, had been dutiful and well behaved, the ideal son and heir, while Nate had been the bad seed, wild and rebellious. All the gifts, the admiration, the praise from the earl had been directed at David. Gilmore had had nothing left for his younger son but chilly stares and cold rebukes.

On his twenty-first birthday, Nate had had one final explosive quarrel with Gilmore. He had left England the very next day, vowing never to return. But now, the news of the earl's death changed everything. It was gratifying to imagine the man moldering in his grave. No fate could be more fitting for that vile wretch.

Lightning flashed against the night sky. For a moment he saw the silhouetted rooftops of Mayfair, strange and yet so familiar. Somewhere out there, his siblings were likely at Gilmore House, where the family always stayed during the season. Emily must be a young lady of nineteen now. David would be thirty-three and the new Earl of Gilmore.

The prospect of seeing them again stirred a morass of emotion in Nate's chest. David had never taken advantage of being the favorite. There had always been a sort of camaraderie between the brothers whenever their father wasn't around. In a way, David had been as much a victim of Gilmore's poison as Nate had.

But did David know the real reason why Nate had departed so abruptly? Had the old devil told his heir the truth? Would his brother reject him now?

As rain sluiced down the window, Nate saw Lady Milford's seated figure reflected in the glass. It struck him that she was still awaiting his response.

Brandy in hand, he walked forward and settled himself on the chaise opposite her chair. “Of course I came here first,” he said, swirling his drink. “After all, it was
your
letter that brought me back to England. And I thought it best to do a bit of reconnaissance before going to Gilmore House. You can fill me in on all the household news.”

“Your family has been in mourning this past year, of course. Emily is finally to make her come-out in a few weeks.” Lady Milford paused, then added, “But before I say more, I must ask why you departed so abruptly—with nary a word of explanation. Your father would only say the two of you had quarreled.”

Scowling, Nate tilted his head back and drained the rest of his brandy. “It was a long time ago. It's best forgotten.”

“Nonsense, such a powerful disagreement cannot be swept under the rug. It will have to be resolved, or it will continue to fester.”

“Fester? Why would you say that?” He sat up straight, his spine rigid. He wondered if she knew the truth. “Did the earl tell David why I left England? Did my brother say something to you?”

“No! Not a word.” Her fine eyebrows drawn in a quizzical frown, she tilted her head. “Nathan, I feel we're speaking at cross-purposes. Did you and your father already clear the air? Did the two of you perhaps straighten things out by letter?”

“Absolutely not. I cut off all contact with my family when I left England. No one but you knew my address.”

“I see,” she said slowly. “Then you must be prepared to make amends when you visit Gilmore House. What will you say to him?”

Nate frowned at her. He must have misheard. There could be no reason for the horrifying suspicion that lurked at the verge of his mind. “What the devil do you mean,
say to him
? My father is dead. You yourself wrote in your letter that he lay on his deathbed.”

BOOK: His Wicked Wish
10.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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