Authors: Caroline Linden
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
To my children,
who never leave me in any doubt
of what they want;
and to Eric, who doesn’t, either.
Writing a first book is pure fun; you can write one sentence at a time, whenever the muse wanders by, with endless time to rewrite and revise, and no one to please but yourself. Writing a second book is much harder. You can’t wait for the muse to waltz in when she feels like it, you must track her down and beat the story out of her because you have a
. My eternal thanks to the following people for encouraging me, prompting me, and cutting me some slack during the writing of tins book: Heidi Hermiller, who read it first and told me how to fix the first part; all my Romance Unleashed friends (Paula, Laura, Lori, Kristina, Flo, Sally, Sandy, Jackie, Sophia, Cynthia, Jessica, Eve, Teresa, Kate, Pamela, Kathy, Kathleen, Barbara, and Irene) for overflowing my inbox with friendship and support; Stephanie Kip Rostan, my wonderful agent, for keeping me sane and on-track; John Scognamiglio, for being a writer’s fantasy editor to work with; and my husband and children, for thinking this writing habit of mine is pretty cool and exciting, even when it makes me crazy.
No one noticed the man who arrived last. The host and hostess had long since mingled with their guests. It was almost the supper dance.
The latecomer did not join them. He paused just inside the ballroom, his gaze sweeping the elegant, merry crowd. But after a moment he turned and went up the stairs, away from the ball. Moving quietly and quickly, he turned into the family wing, pausing at each door, every now and then opening one a fraction of an inch before easing it closed and going on.
Finally, almost at the end of the hall, he stopped longest, placing his ear right up next to the door. With a stealthy glance over his shoulder, he opened the door and stepped inside.
Anyone else would probably have backed out at discovering a couple occupied as this one was. Marcus Reece, however, was not embarrassed at all, and instead of backing out of the room, he closed the door behind him.
“There… oh yes… yes…” moaned the woman, rising and falling in sensual abandon, her head thrown back and eyes closed in ecstasy.
There? Oh no,
there,“ panted the man bucking beneath her thighs. His hands were wrapped about her hips, his trousers down around his still-shod feet.
The woman laughed, her breath catching in a gasp. “Almost? Wait for me, love.”
“Can’t,” growled the man, shoving himself up on one elbow and taking her dark pink nipple into his mouth. “Come now.”
“Oh… Oh… Oh oh
!” Her exclamations rose into a shriek as she finally opened her eyes and realized they were not alone. “Oh my God!” She shoved her lover away from her breast and vaulted off his lap, grabbing up her loosened gown in a vain attempt to cover herself. “What are
Marcus regarded her stonily. “Saving your life, most likely.”
The man on the chaise had recovered from his shock enough to sit up and turn. “Marcus, old man, how kind of you to join us,” he said in a voice sharp with sarcasm. “To what do we owe the displeasure?”
“To Lord Barlow.” The woman made a strange gulping sound and turned pale. “He has been drinking a great deal tonight, and it seems he is out of patience with the rumors of his wife’s infidelities. Someone has finally broken the news to him that while he sits at his club, Lady Barlow graces other gentlemen with her private attentions. He is on his way here as we speak, to see for himself how true the rumors are.”
The woman gasped, and began frantically adjusting her clothing. Marcus ignored her and turned back to his brother. “Barlow means to kill you, David,” he said in a low voice. “He heard your name. Get up and get dressed.”
“You said he didn’t care,” David accused the woman, yanking up his trousers. Her arms bent behind her as she tried to fasten her gown, Lady Barlow glared back at him.
“He doesn’t care! Only…” She darted a quick glance at Marcus, who had retrieved David’s discarded shirt and was turning it right side out. “Only when he drinks,” she finished a bit sullenly.
“The man’s a bloody sot!” Marcus flung the shirt at his brother, and David jerked it over his head. “You lied to me.”
“As if you cared,” she flung back.
“Quiet!” Marcus silenced them both. “That no longer matters. David, my carriage will be waiting in the mews. Get out of the house any way you can without being seen, and go directly there. Here.” He handed David his waistcoat and jacket.
“Why?” David asked, pulling on the jacket.
Marcus smiled grimly. “Barlow may be close at my heels, and will raise an uproar if he finds you. Or believes he finds you.”
“Oh.” David stuffed his discarded cravat into a pocket and got to his feet. “Right, then. In the mews?”
Marcus jerked his head in a nod, already turning toward the mirror. The door opened and closed softly as David left, and Lady Barlow said, “Well!” Marcus ran his hands through his hair, ruffling it a bit. “What the devil am I supposed to do?” she exclaimed, when he ignored her. “I don’t suppose you’ve some secret plan to allow me to sneak out.”
“You, madam, are coming with me.”Jocelyn Barlow pouted and crossed her arms under her bosom.
“I haven’t agreed to any of this.”
He barely glanced at her. “I don’t recall soliciting your agreement, but considering your husband’s temper, it would be in your best interest to persuade him you’ve been with me instead of with my brother.”
with your brother,” she muttered.
“I don’t care whether you found it satisfying or not,” he said in a dangerously quiet voice. “I don’t care about
She snorted, and Marcus faced her. For a moment he was tempted to leave her here like this, still disheveled and unbuttoned. She was an unfaithful wife, apparently an untruthful lover, and Marcus truly didn’t care about her.
But if he didn’t, she would owe him nothing. Her husband was in a fury, had publicly declared his intentions, and Marcus didn’t think she would raise a finger to calm him; she’d likely enjoy the notoriety of being the cause of a duel. Marcus hadn’t raced across town and barged in on them just to have Barlow call David out before breakfast tomorrow. Turn around,“ he ordered. She opened her mouth, looked at his expression, and turned around without a word.
“We will stroll downstairs and rejoin the guests,” he said as he did up her gown properly. Thank God she was one of those daring women who didn’t wear a corset. “We have been admiring the artwork in the salon, and David left hours ago. I don’t think we need to mention anything that happened in this room.” He turned her around and ran a critical eye over her. “Your hair is falling down.” She flushed and turned to the mirror to fix it.
Marcus waited at the door, controlling his impatience. They needed to be seen together for a few minutes before Barlow arrived. Lady Barlow finally finished her toilette and took the arm he offered, and they left the room.
“May I ask why you’re doing this?”
She was quiet for a moment as they walked down the hall. “Do you know, when you first appeared like that, it was quite startling, but also, I must say, rather exciting to see you standing there, watching me…” She cast him a coy look from under her lashes. Marcus, who was not easily shocked, could hardly believe his ears. He stopped, waiting until she looked at him.
“You are sadly mistaken if you think the sight of you riding my brother like a common strumpet was remotely exciting to me,” he said. “I suggest you purge the thought from your head.”
She pouted again, and said nothing more as they reached the stairs and went down to the ballroom.
Normally Marcus spoke only to people he knew and respected, but tonight he purposely slowed his gait and rolled his shoulders a little. When someone hailed him, either by his name or by David’s, he nodded in greeting. A few people gave him odd looks, but he ignored them. There was only one person he truly needed to confuse, and Barlow had been drinking.
“You, sir!” A stocky gentleman and his companions plowed to a halt behind them. “I demand satisfaction!”
With one last speaking glance at Lady Barlow, Marcus turned. The rest of the room was already facing his accuser, breathless with anticipation. Either rumor moved even faster than Marcus’s horses, or the fool had been telling everyone here of his intentions. “Satisfaction, Barlow? For what, may I ask?”
At the sound of his voice, Lord Barlow’s eyes widened, and he gulped. “Exeter. Oh. I say. I thought…” He cleared his throat and shot a nervous glance at one of his friends. “Exeter. How do you do, sir?” He gave a wobbly bow.
Marcus looked down on him. “I am well, sir.” He waited a heartbeat. “And you?”
Barlow hiccupped at his frosty tone. “Very well, sir.” There was a moment of silence. “Jocelyn,” muttered Barlow.
“Good evening, husband.” She dipped into a slight curtsey, hiding her pallor behind her fan.
Marcus unwound her hand from his elbow. “Now that you have arrived, Barlow, I will return your wife, with my thanks for the pleasure of her company this evening.”
“The pleasure of her company,” parroted Barlow, taking his wife’s hand. He looked completely flummoxed, thrown off his stride. “Yes. Mmph. Yes.”
“She was kind enough to show me our hosts’ gallery,” said Marcus. “Quite illuminating.” Lady Barlow was known as a patron of the arts. Marcus suspected she especially patronized handsome young artists, but that was beside the point.
“Quite.” Barlow seemed incapable of conversation. He continued to glance between Marcus and his wife as though he didn’t comprehend what they were saying. But there was nothing he could say without calling his wife a whore and Marcus a liar. And while he might be drunk enough to do the former, he wasn’t about to do the latter. Marcus decided he had done enough.
“Good evening, Barlow. Lady Barlow.” He turned and walked away, hearing Lord Barlow’s complaint to one of his companions: “Greaves, you’re daft! That was Exeter, not his wastrel brother.”
To which Greaves whined, “I never could tell them apart!”
Marcus strode from the ballroom, ignoring the furious whispers that sprang up in his wake. With no apparent sign of hurry, he left the house without once looking back. His carriage was waiting at the bottom of the steps, the footman standing at attention next to the door. He pulled it open as Marcus approached, and closed it behind him. Marcus rapped once on the roof, and they were off almost instantaneously.
“I suppose I should thank you,” came David’s voice from the shadows opposite. “I can’t believe she lied to me.”
“If you had any sense at all, you would have made certain of matters yourself.”
David snorted. “Well, when have I had any sense?”
Marcus didn’t disagree. David
no sense, carrying on with the wife of a jealous man and then making light of the affair to his friends. One of those friends had spread the tale, obviously having as litde discretion as David did. “I suggest you take a holiday until the scandal dies down.”
“Scandal?” David sat up. “How can there be a scandal? He didn’t catch us together, or even see us together.”
Marcus let out his breath slowly. “Barlow overheard that fool Brixton regaling some friends with the tale. He was too drunk to puzzle out why he saw his wife with me instead of with you, but he’ll get there eventually. Enough people will know she was with you earlier.”
David sat back with a huff. “Fine.”
Marcus felt a moment of relief that David had agreed so easily, and pressed the point. “Tomorrow.”
“Come now, that’s extreme!” David protested. Marcus said nothing. “Surely that looks like running away,” David tried again. Still Marcus said nothing. He didn’t give a damn what it looked like. He cared what it would accomplish. Silence filled the carriage until they reached David’s town house. The vehicle tipped slightly as the footman stepped down to get the door.
“”Fine, then,“ snapped David. ”I’ll go. Enjoy the gossip in my stead.“ He jumped down from the carriage without a word of good-bye, let alone thanks, and stomped up his steps. Marcus leaned back and sighed. David would be gone before Barlow’s headache passed tomorrow if Marcus personally had to set him bound and gagged on the public mail coach. Truth be told, Marcus had been looking for a way to get David out of London, and while this was not quite as good as any—how dare David carry on without a thought for his family’s reputation, when their sister would be making her debut in less than a year—it would suffice. No doubt David would find something, or someone, just as disreputable in Brighton, but London society would be more engrossed in its own follies. Without a duel, any gossip about Lady Barlow and David would fade.
Suddenly tired, Marcus signaled the coachman to go home. He had no interest in returning to his club. Though it had taken barely an hour, riding to David’s rescue had worn him out and utterly ruined the evening. He knew it was too much to expect gratitude, but he did wish David didn’t resent him for it. Someday, Marcus thought, he wouldn’t do it, and David would discover how cruel his interference had been. But first he must think of Celia and her future. Once his sister was well and safely married, Marcus promised himself, David would be cut loose, free to behave—and suffer—in any way he liked.