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Intentions of the Earl $2.99 Kindle Edition
INTENTIONS OF THE EARL
At exactly four in the afternoon a knock rattled the front door; followed by none other than the Earl of Townson being let in.
Skulking about in the shadows, Brooke felt a little smile spread over her lips. She was glad he'd come.
After a few minutes of drawing room chitchat, Andrew and Brooke climbed into a curricle and were off for a ride around the park.
“My favorite color is red,” Andrew stated blandly, his eyes alight with laughter.
Confused by the proclamation, Brooke nodded and shrugged. “Mine's green.”
“That’s nice. I’ll keep that in mind. However, I had guessed that already, seeing as how your gown today is green. I believe the one you wore yesterday was, too,” he said, gesturing to her forest green gown.
“I guess I'm very obvious in what colors I like, unlike you. I have yet to see you wear red,” Brooke said pertly.
“I said my favorite color is red, not that I like to wear it,” Andrew parried.
“Why would you tell me your favorite color? And, if it’s your favorite color, why not wear it?” she asked, favoring him with a curious look.
“Just because I don’t want to wear it, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want you to wear it,” he countered, putting deliberate emphasis on the word “you”. “I’m telling you this so you know what color to choose during your visit to the modiste.”
Brooke turned her body the best she could to look him in his eyes. His cobalt blue eyes were looking straight at her as if they could see right through her. She didn’t know exactly what it was he could see, or if was a good or bad thing he saw. “Why would I be going to a modiste?”
Andrew gazed at her perturbed facial expression, complete with a slight frown and knitted brow. “For your trousseau, darling,” he drawled. When her face turned pink, he pushed further, “But if you want, you can spare the expense of building a trousseau,” he shrugged with nonchalance, “nothing is the preferable outfit for one’s wedding night.” After her blush went to crimson, he winked at her. “But since you think a trousseau is necessary, you should know my favorite color is red. Oh, and I also like things that are filmy and transparent.”
“And why would I be creating my trousseau with your favorite color?” she asked, astonished they were even speaking of such things. Both Mama and Liberty would be scandalized if they knew.
Letting go of the reins with one hand, he grabbed both of her hands with his one big one; then grinned at her. “You seem to be bent on the idea of becoming my countess. If you are to be the Countess of Townson; that would make me your husband, such as, I thought you should be aware that I will be the one, and only, to see you modeling said trousseau. Therefore, I just thought to tell you what color you should choose for my enjoyment.”
Where was all of this coming from, Brooke wondered. Then it dawned on her, he was trying to bait her because of that note she’d written. “I’m so glad you told me. I quite forgot I have an appointment on Thursday. I shall remember to get something red and filmy just for you,” she said with a sensual smile. Then her smile faded, and she began to tap her finger against the side of her head as if she was in deep contemplation. “When I go in should I have these garments, and some much needed fashionable ball gowns, added to your account?”
Brooke thought she saw something flicker in his eyes, but it was gone before she could name it.
“I have no money, darling,” he drawled. “If you agree to marry me and be my countess, we will be known as the Penniless Earl and Countess of Townson,” he said jovially with a self-depreciating smile firmly on his lips.
Brooke couldn’t stop the little laugh that escaped her lips. “Well then, I suppose I could splurge with my pin money and buy my own trousseau. Don’t worry though, after we marry and you get my dowry, which is a whole fifty pounds, we’ll be rich and live like kings!” she teased.
“Fifty pounds you say? Well, I don’t know about living like kings, but perhaps we could live like princes,” he said with a bright smile.
“Oh yes! We could have so many wonderful things. We could go to the opera every night, and host huge house parties all Season,” she exclaimed playfully with a sparkle in her eyes. Brooke truly had a dowry, but it wasn’t a measly fifty pounds. In American dollars her dowry would have been larger; however, when exchanged into pounds it came to be about five thousand pounds. Just enough to be considered a generous amount, but not enough to be pursued by every fortune hunter. But just to be sure, her papa hadn’t made known the amount of her dowry.
Andrew pulled the curricle to a halt and jumped down. After helping Brooke down, he led her to an unoccupied bench. “Here, let’s sit.”
“Flowers don’t grow in New York?” Andrew asked skeptically.
Brooke laughed. “No, they grow. But with all the snow, ice and cold, we don’t get to spend very long looking at flowers; except roses of course.”
“Ah, roses, one of the few flowers that thrive in cold weather.”
Brooke took a seat on the bench and waited for Andrew to join her. “The rose is the most common flower found in New York,” she said, trying to fill the silence.
“Is it safe to say that you like roses then?”
“Of course, I wouldn’t be a true New Yorker if I didn’t,” she said in the thickest New York accent she could muster.
Shaking his head at her exaggeration of her accent, Andrew took a seat next to her on the bench. “So, dahling,” he drawled, trying to match her Yankee accent, “what color roses are your favorites?”
Brooke laughed at his imitation of her speech. “Why? Are you planning to buy me some?” She paused a second. “Oh right, I forgot you’re a pauper, you can’t buy them. Are you going to grow them for me?” She honestly doubted he’d ever given much thought to growing roses, or any type of flowers for that matter.
“I’d definitely have to grow them, as I don’t have the extra funds for one stem,” he said earnestly. He placed his fingers under Brooke’s chin and turned her head to face him so he could look deep into her eyes. “You still did not answer my question. Which color do you prefer?”
Brooke blinked a few times. Many men had touched her face, tried to hold her hand, and some had even kissed her; but she had never really been comfortable with the intimacy of it, nor enjoyed it so much. Andrew’s touch seemed to scorch her skin. She wet her lips and stared straight into his blue eyes before answering. “It would depend on who they were from and the reason for giving them.”
Her statement seemed to baffle him. “Could you please explain what you mean?”
Still looking into his eyes, Brooke took a deep breath and said, “Tell me who are they from and why they are giving me roses; and I’ll tell you what color they should choose.”
Andrew dropped his fingers from her chin and moved them to where her hands were folded in her lap. “From me. Just because.”
Brooke gasped. “Um...” she cleared her throat, “in that case, white or yellow would be the right color.”
“The right color?” Andrew questioned, lifting his brow.
“Yes, the right color.” At his look of uncertainty, she went on, “Different color roses represent different things. White roses represent purity or sympathy. They are often used for bouquets for brides to show innocence. Sometimes white roses are sent to people who are sick or who have suffered a loss to represent sympathy. Yellow roses symbolize friendship or happiness; they can also be given by a friend of either sex. Therefore, from you, a man of my acquaintance, or a friend, yellow or white would be appropriate.”
Andrew nodded. “Didn’t you forget a few colors?” he asked, smiling at her when she gave a weak nod. “What about pink or red? Why could I not give you those colors?” he asked softly, stroking the backs of her hands with his thumbs.
Brooke was distracted by his hands on hers. “In order to give those colors the relationship and the feelings would have to be different. Deeper.”
“Deeper? Does that mean that a fiancé could give pink or red roses?”
Distracted by his hands that had turned hers over and were now rubbing circular motions on the inside of her palms with his thumbs, Brooke slightly nodded. Moistening her lips, she said, “Yes; that would be appropriate. The pink ones could be given to a fiancé. Pink roses represent elegance and great appreciation or admiration. The red ones though, are strictly for love, true love. Maybe a fiancé could receive them, or even a woman you want to be your fiancé. A wife for sure could receive red roses—if you love her, that is. You really shouldn’t be giving red roses to someone that you don’t have a strong relationship with or that you don’t love for that matter. Because then she might get the wrong idea. She might think you love her, when in fact, you do not have that strong of feelings for her.” Brooke was oblivious of her rambling; she was too busy thinking about the way his touch made her skin tingle. During her ramble, his hands had removed her left glove and his fingers were dancing every so lightly on her wrist.
When his thumb grazed her wrist again, she shivered then suddenly jumped up and pulled her hands from his searing grasp. “Oh my, I think we should be going,” she insisted quickly, her words flying out of her mouth faster than a bird being chased by a cat. “It’s getting late and I don’t want Mama to wonder what has happened to us. She does worry so terribly much about us here in London. She says it is not as safe here as we’re used to back home. I don’t know if she thinks we are going to be nabbed right off the street or what, but she is ever so over cautious. Really, we must be going.”
“All right, I shall return you at once. We wouldn’t want to risk being robbed sitting here in this vacant part of the park,” Andrew joked, taking to his feet.
Brooke gave a light smile. She knew he probably thought she was a ninny; but the truth was that he was too distracting by far, and she needed to go before she embarrassed herself. She had never felt this way when any of the other gentlemen had touched her. What’s worse, he’d barely touched her in comparison to what some of them tried to do. With other gentlemen it tickled, or if they had calluses, they’d scratch her skin. But Andrew’s touch was different, it was hot and searing. It felt perfect.
So perfect, she knew she might do something she shouldn’t if she didn’t put a stop to his touching at once.
The ride back to her residence was for the most part filled with companionable silence. “I enjoyed our ride today. If you are agreeable, I would like to go for another tomorrow or the next day,” Andrew said, breaking the silence.
“That would be lovely,” she murmured. The she smiled wryly and added, “It will have to be tomorrow or in two days, because the day after tomorrow is Thursday, and I have my appointment at the modiste.”
Andrew shook his head. “You may want to wait a bit on that, at least until I grow you a pink rose.”
Most people would be embarrassed by his direct mention of their gaffe, but Brooke was not one of them. In mock irritation she exclaimed, “You, sir, could not be so lucky. I will be waiting for a red one!”
“A red what?” asked a voice from the door.
Both Brooke and Andrew turned to see Liberty standing in the doorway, her hands firmly on her hips. “Oh nothing, Liberty,” Brooke said trying to turn the attention off of them. How had they gotten back here so fast? “What are you doing outside on the steps?”
“Waiting for you,” she stated flatly. “You’ve been gone for more than an hour, without a chaperone I might add.” She sent a blistering stare at the couple. “See, even Lord Townson agrees, he’s nodding his head.”
Andrew was in fact nodding his head, but Brooke highly doubted it was because he agreed with what Liberty was saying.
Ignoring Liberty, Andrew helped Brooke down from the curricle.
“Lord Townson, I did enjoy our afternoon together and I look forward to going again sometime,” Brooke told him as a goodbye before this nonsense with Liberty could continue any further.
“I also enjoyed our afternoon, and I shall call upon you again in the near future, Miss Banks,” Andrew said, taking his cue and climbing back onto the curricle.
“Wait!” screamed Mama, running outside and looking all out of sorts. “Before you go, I wanted to invite you to dinner tomorrow night. I would be absolutely delighted if you would come and join us for our evening meal.” Allowing Andrew no time to agree or refuse, she quickly added, “We eat at eight sharp. You’ll need to be here a little early. Quarter till should be sufficient. We look forward to it.” She waved to Andrew and stepped back into the house. “Come girls!” she chirped.
Paul rubbed his fingers over his face. Pulling his hands back, he stared at his fingers. They had more wrinkles than a ninety year old woman. It was definitely time to get out of the tub.
Standing up, he twisted his body and reached for the towel he knew was on the stool behind him. But instead of landing on a fluffy towel, his hand was met with the hard wooden surface of the stool. Fully turning his body around to better see the offending piece of furniture, Paul discovered the stool did not hold a towel at all. All he saw on top of the wooden seat was his wire rimmed spectacles.
Stepping out of the tub, he put on his spectacles and looked under and on both sides of the stool. There was not a towel in sight. He frowned. He remembered specifically asking the maid for a towel and taking it from her when she came back. Then he’d gone behind the screen and placed it on the stool before disrobing. Where had it gone?
Paul sighed. It wasn’t a problem; he’d just stand there a few minutes to let the air-dry his body, then he’d put on his clean clothes.
When his skin felt dry enough to drag his clothes over, Paul stepped out from behind the screen and walked over to where he’d laid his clothes out on the bed.
Reaching the bed, Paul groaned with deep irritation. Had the maid accidentally taken his clean clothes? He’d heard her come in during the middle of his bath and assumed she was trying to please her employer by being efficient. Not being used to a lot of servants, he hadn’t question her activities. It did make sense why she’d taken the wrong clothes; they were the only clothes on this side of the screen. The clothes he’d worn earlier were in a pile on the other side of the screen. Shaking his head, Paul padded over to the corner to dig out a different set of clothes from his trunk.
Leaning over at the waist, he slowly opened his trunk. With one hand holding up the lid, he bent over and extended his fingers to snatch up whatever clothes were on top. Not being bent far enough, he bent further and further until his bare arse was straight up in the air and his fingers collided with the hard bottom of his empty trunk.
Straightening himself up and abruptly letting go of the lid, causing it to crash down on the box with an echoing thud, Paul grabbed a match off the bottom of the wall sconce that was directly above his trunk and lit the lamp. Surely his mind was playing tricks on him, or perhaps his vision—even with spectacles—was so bad he'd been reaching beside the chest. Those were the only explanations he was willing to entertain for his recent discovery.
Lamp lit and glowing, Paul yanked open the lid of his trunk with more force than necessary only to reveal what he already knew was in there: nothing.
Slamming down the lid, Paul made a noise of irritation. This was the work of one person: Liberty. He’d been told the family was out visiting the earl and countess, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t given orders to the maid before she left. Now it made sense why the maid came in while he was bathing. And why his towel had gone missing.
Angrily, Paul stalked across the room. No matter how much John tried to smooth this over, he wasn’t staying. Having his clothes stolen was not his idea of an enjoyable visit. And this was only the first night. Who knew what other treats she had in store for him! He’d just have put on the clothes he’d worn earlier, even if they were wrinkled and slightly wet from the snow. He knew these clothes were in the room. He’d taken them off and thrown them in a heap at the far end of the tub. The maid hadn’t come behind the screen. Well, she’d had to in order to grab his towel from behind his back; but she hadn’t gone to the end of his tub and collected his dirty clothes.
Rounding the screen, Paul swiftly walked to the end of the tub and leaned down to retrieve his clothes.
“Looking for something?”
Paul’s hands instinctively flew to his privates and his head snapped up so fast he was left with a dizzy feeling—or maybe the dizzy feeling was caused by the sight that presented itself in front of him, he wasn’t sure.
Not three feet away, standing by the fireplace was his nemesis: Liberty Banks; and she was holding his clothes—directly over the roaring fire.
They weren’t actually on fire. Yet. He considered that good fortune, indeed. “Would you kindly give me back my clothes?” Paul asked irritably, glancing down at his hands to make sure he was covered properly. She might have an illusion that he owed her the privilege of viewing his body because he’d seen hers. Unfortunately for her, he wasn’t in the mood to become a source of virgin entertainment.
Liberty laughed. “You don’t need to cover up. I already saw your…” she trailed off and sent a pointed look to where his hands were doing their best to shield her view of him. She smiled up at him with a crooked smile. Her dull brown hair was coming loose from the hideous bun she always wore on the top of her head and a lock was falling in her face, partially covering one of her hazel eyes.
“Nonetheless,” he said stiffly, twisting his body to offer more protection from her gaze. “Your game is up. And unless you want to see it again, you’ll give me my clothes back.”
“Are you threatening me, Mr. Grimes?” Liberty asked archly, lowering her hand an inch and bringing his clothes that much closer to the flames. “It seems to me that I hold all the cards. Or clothes, as the case may be.”
“Indeed,” Paul conceded. Did she want to see him naked? A chill ran down his spine. Only one way to find out. Turning back to face her, he said, “Well, if you’ve already seen it, and you’re still holding my clothes, then I guess you didn’t get a good enough look. Do you want another peek?” He took delight as her eyes widened when he moved one of his hands away, still leaving him somewhat covered.
Under normal circumstances he’d never be so bold as to issue such a challenge, or follow through with it, but his irritation with her, coupled with his strong desire to have his clothes back and be on his way, was impacting his brain and turning him into someone he didn’t recognize.
Outstretching his free hand, Paul asked, “May I please have my clothes back now, or do I need to remove my other hand and get them myself?”
“Why should I give you your clothes back?” she demanded.
“Because now we’re even,” Paul snapped.
“We’re not even,” she responded sharply, her gaze at his waist, absorbing what was exposed to her curious eyes.
“No? Would you like to bathe me, is that it?” he countered, slowly reaching for the clothes she held hostage above the fire.
“No,” she snapped, her eyes flying to his. She took the small bundle of his clothes and brought them to her chest, wrapping both arms around them and clutching them tightly to her chest.
“All right; then give me back my clothes.” He reached out further, attempting to grab them from her arms, but she was holding them with all her might and he knew that in order for him to get them back he’d have to use both hands.
Liberty smiled at him again. If he weren’t so infuriated with her at the moment, he’d almost think she looked pretty. Of course nobody else, including Liberty, he’d bet, actually thought she was. She had plain brown hair matched with hazel eyes and a long nose. Her mouth was wide with slightly crooked teeth and she was nearly as thin as a scarecrow. Her looks would be considered plain at best, not pretty or ugly really, just plain. But when she smiled, it lit up her face and transformed it in a way that he found rather attractive. Trouble was, she barely ever smiled; and never specifically at him—until just now.
“You’ll get your clothes back when I’m satisfied I’ll never have to clap eyes on you again,” Liberty said tartly, still smiling.
“I agree,” Paul said heartily, more than happy to oblige her. “Give me my clothes and I’ll be gone in less than ten minutes.”
Liberty shook her head. “No, that’s not good enough. I need insurance. I need to know you’ll not be coming back into this house, or my presence, ever again.”
“And taking my clothes is going to accomplish that?” Paul could feel his irritation growing again. Why didn’t she just give them back to him already?
“Don’t worry, you’ll get them back—eventually,” Liberty said, scooting along the wall away from the fireplace and to the shadowed corner.
“Listen here,” Paul hissed. “If you think that you’re going to continue to hold my clothes while I stand here naked, you’re greatly mistaken. I’ll get my clothes back one way or the other; and if you don’t give them back on your own accord, you’ll wish you had.”
“How so?” she queried from the dark corner.
Paul slowly walked closer to where she was. He could hear the rustle of fabric and knew she was about to do something with his clothes. He just didn’t know what. “I’m not keeping myself covered because of my own modesty.”
“I’ve already told you that you could move your hands, I already saw your thing,” she said nonchalantly, a ripping noise following her words.
Paul didn’t believe her the first time she’d told him she’d seen his tool, and he certainly didn’t believe it when he moved his first hand and her eyes were drawn to his waist like a moth to a flame. But enough was enough, and if he had to wrestle her to the ground naked in order to get his clothes back, so be it. Removing his other hand from his privates, he raced to the corner, bent on grabbing his clothes from her evil clutches.
Liberty squealed and ran in the opposite direction, causing him to nearly collide with the wall. Throwing caution—and pride—to the wind, Paul ran after her. He chased her around the furniture, going over the bed, around the wardrobe, behind the screen, around the tub, to the vanity, and back to tub, knocking over the screen with a loud crash as they zipped by. Paul reached out and stopped her by grabbing the loosened ribbon on the back of her gown.
“I’ve got you now,” he breathed in her ear after he’d tugged her back to rest against his chest.
“No, you don’t,” she said, moving in such a way that made the ribbon he held slide through the loops, freeing her from his hold. She immediately scurried to resume her former position by the fireplace.
Paul looked down in his hand where the ribbon that had once been the making of a bow on the back of her gown now lay across his palm in a wrinkled mess. Looking back up, he saw Liberty over by the fireplace with her gown in complete disarray. Most of the buttons going down the front were undone, showing the tops of her breasts and about three inches of her corset. Her gown looked torn by the sleeve and the skirts were crumpled beyond repair. Her hair, for the most part, had fallen down and looked to be in an awful tangle. There was no way she could look like that after briefly running around the room, could she?
Throwing the ribbon down to the floor in disgust, Paul looked at her. She had a blank expression on her face and her gaze was leveled on his waist. But he didn’t even care. He was beyond caring. “See something you like,” he teased, hoping to distract her with his words so he could grab his clothes.
Her face turned crimson and she pulled her eyes up to his face, not quite meeting his eyes. “Actually, no I didn’t. I think I would’ve liked what I saw much better if that scar,” she pointed to a jagged scar he had on his left hip that ran from his hipbone to half an inch from another part of his anatomy, “went just a little further over,” she said, her eyes flashing fire.
“You’re a bloodthirsty one, aren’t you,” Paul said easily. Leave it to her to want him emasculated, as if this whole situation wasn’t bad enough already.
“I’m not bloodthirsty,” she said hotly. “It’s just a shame, that’s all.”
“A shame I was not unmanned?” he asked disbelievingly. “I think that part of my anatomy has suffered at your hands enough already, thank you.” What had he ever done to her to make her have this hatred for him?
“How did it happen?” she asked quietly, ignoring his remark.
Paul was in awe. Her voice had been so quiet it was hard to be certain, but he could have sworn her tone had held a hint of sympathy. “When I was twelve, my brother Sam and I found my uncle’s old fencing rapiers. Never having had a fencing lesson, we started wildly swinging them around at each other. Neither of us realized the protective tip wasn’t on Sam’s very well until in one undisciplined swing, Sam’s tip flew off and his rapier cut me.” Paul saw her wince and added ruefully, “Although you’ve expressed disappointment that his rapier did not travel further, I’m rather glad it stopped where it did.”
“I’m sorry for my remark, it was most unkind of me,” Liberty said softly, still looking at his scar.
“It’s all right,” he assured her. Compared to all the other things she’d said or done, that was nothing. “May I have my clothes now?”
His words pulled Liberty out of her trance. Looking down at the clothes in her arms and her own gown, she bit her lip before she looked up and met his eyes again. “I…I...”
It didn’t matter what she was going to say or do next because just then, the door to his bedchamber swung open and was followed by a shriek of surprise.
Though Paul had his back to the door, he knew who it was; and just for further confirmation, he knew with certainty he’d guessed right when Liberty turned as white as chalk.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”
Madison Banks knew it was her brother-in-law, Paul Grimes, who was speaking. She heard his voice and listened to his words, but she couldn’t seem to force herself to focus on them. Instead, her focus was directed solely at her groom.
He was tall, handsome, titled and wealthy. Every girl’s dream come true. Except hers. To be honest he gave her the chills. And not the good kind, either. No, these chills were the kind that sent people into hiding. He sent her into hiding. Not to say he was mean to her, because that would actually be a lie. He had been extremely nice to her at one point—which was part of the reason why she now found herself standing up in front of hundreds of people pledging her life to him.
It all started eight short weeks ago when her parents had just gone away to America to make arrangements to have their household moved to England, her father’s homeland. Her sister, Brooke Black, Lady Townson, along with her husband Andrew, Lord Townson, stepped in to act as her chaperone and guardian while her parents were away.
At first things had gone well. Very well, in fact. Brooke played her chaperone’s role in regular Brooke fashion. In short, she wasn’t a very good one. She often allowed Madison to go on unchaperoned carriage rides in the park and would leave the room for half-hour intervals to go check on her newborn while Madison was left unattended with a gentleman. Madison hadn’t complained about such things. She rather enjoyed that Brooke gave her the freedom Mama hadn’t allowed.
However, it wasn’t due to Brooke’s lack of chaperoning skills that led to Madison’s demise. That was completely her own doing.
A month ago she’d been at a ball surrounded by countless gentlemen fawning over her bright blonde hair, clear blue eyes and porcelain skin, all the while, she was thinking what a load of simpletons they all were. Why couldn’t anyone notice anything deeper about her than her outward appearance, she wondered. She knew she’d acted shy and withdrawn the previous Season, but she’d been dancing waltzes and going to numerous social events for the past few months and all anyone could notice was her looks.
No one cared about the charitable works she did for others. Nor did anyone see her personal talents. No; all anyone saw was her striking beauty, and they were all so struck dumb by it they couldn’t function properly in her presence.
Annoyed with the inane comments of the imbeciles around her, she decided it would be best to dance and endure the company of only one dullard instead of a dozen. The orchestra started playing the opening strains of a waltz and Madison caught sight of her brother-in-laws walking across the ballroom. Curious, her eyes shifted to search the direction they were walking, and that’s when she thought her world was about to collapse around her.
Directly across the ballroom from Andrew and Paul stood Robbie Swift, the no-good, filthy cad who ruined her life. No, wait, that wasn’t entirely true. Her family may blame him for ruining her life, but they knew just as well as Madison did that she was just as responsible.
Robbie had been a local banker’s son back in Brooklyn, New York. He’d been tall, handsome and undeniably charming. He’d had all the workings of a young girl’s fairy tale husband.
He was only two years older than Madison, and when she and Brooke were young girls, the three of them would play together (when they could manage to ditch their youngest sister, Liberty, that is). As they entered their teenage years, Robbie was no longer a playmate but just another person of acquaintance. He’d attend her father’s church and played the flirt to all three of the Banks sisters. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on who you ask—Madison was the only member of the Banks family who could abide him.
Brooke could hardly tolerate him as a playmate when they were younger, and her feelings for him didn’t change as they grew older. Only because of Madison’s never ceasing protests did Brooke finally quit trying to fling rocks at him with a makeshift slingshot.
Liberty wasn’t much better in hiding her dislike for Robbie. However, instead of hurling rocks at him or pouring large quantities of salt in his tea like Brooke, she’d drone on and on about how much she didn’t enjoy his presence and wished he’d either marry Madison or go find another girl to annoy.
Mama and Papa were the only ones who attempted to cover their dislike for him. They’d casually have conversations with her, dropping hints about other eligible gentleman or suggest she take a break from the courtship with Robbie and see what happens.
But no, Madison didn’t want their advice. She wanted Robbie. She had to have him no matter what. For a brief time she considered taking her parents advice and focusing on another gentleman, but when she’d heard he’d made some unflattering remarks about her, she strengthened her resolve and started to pursue Robbie like a cat chasing a mouse.
The problem was she, being the cat, had been declawed, not that such a thing was possible, mind you, but metaphorically of course. She could chase him into a corner and almost have him in her clutches, then he’d scurry away and she’d be on the chase again. This cat and mouse game where she chased him and he escaped her grasp at the last minute went on for five years. Yes, that’s right five years! Now some would say a courtship is usually about five months. Or some might even be five weeks. And then, of course, there are the ones that are rather odd at five days. But five years? That’s unheard of. And yet, that’s how long the cat chased the mouse. Actually, cat and mouse is a bad analogy. A better analogy would be a puppeteer and puppet. However, in this analogy, Madison would undeniably be termed the puppet.
For five years she danced to his tune in hopes of becoming Mrs. Robert Swift. And in the end, that honor went to a weak ninny named Laura Small.
Laura was a spoiled southern girl who had never so much as seen needle and thread in a person’s hand as they weaved it in and out of cloth. She’d grown up in southern Georgia on a booming cotton plantation. She flounced her way into New York spending money as if it grew on a cotton plant. She used her sugary-sweet southern voice to get the men to do her bidding with nothing more than a few compliments and a sickening grin. Within a week, she was the belle of all the balls. Within another week, she was Mrs. Robert Swift.
While Madison and Robbie had an unusually long courtship of five years that led nowhere, Laura and Robbie had an unusually short courtship of five days that led to the altar. Talk about the injustice of the world!
Only a month after the blessed event of two heartless, coldblooded creatures becoming one, Madison’s family decided it was time to visit Papa’s family in England.
Their intention was only to stay a few months, but when her older sister, Brooke, married an earl and announced a few months later she was in the family way, her parents decided to stay a bit longer. Then came the unexpected marriage of her younger sister, Liberty, to a country vicar named Paul Grimes. When it turned out that two of their three daughters were happily married in England, Mama and Papa decided it would be best if they took up residence in England as well, which was why they were absent for the ball.
She’d been in England over a year now and had attended more balls than she cared to count. Not that she didn’t like to dance, she did. The problem was she didn’t want to marry. Robbie’s betrayal had cut deep. Deeper than she thought possible. So brutal his treatment of her, she didn’t think she could ever trust a man again.
She’d lived her life constantly lost in a daydream for nearly a year before allowing herself to open up and enjoy life again. She’d erected walls around her heart and vowed she’d never be so careless as to trust another with it again.
So naturally, when she saw that miserable scoundrel that had the nerve to call himself a man, she started to panic. Hundreds of questions swirled around in her head, but they all came down to: what did he want now. She knew he hadn’t come here for anyone else. He only knew one other person in England besides her family, and that person was a commoner. She knew he wasn’t here for Liberty or Brooke, she was certain of that, which meant he was here for Madison.
Knowing he’d probably spotted her already, she fought to keep her calm as she weighed her options. She could dance the night away with any number of gentlemen that were currently swarming around her like bees to a hive and ignore him in hopes he’d leave. She could make her way to seek refuge with her sisters and wait for their husbands to toss him out like she knew they were about to do. Or she could slip out of the ballroom and run to her bedchamber for the remainder of the night.
Glancing at the herd of sheep dressed as gentlemen that surrounded her, she ruled out option number one. Shifting her gaze to where Brooke and Liberty were, she saw she’d have no choice but to walk directly in front of him as she walked to the staircase that led to Brooke’s look-out. That only left retiring for the evening. That wouldn’t be a bad option, she supposed. She’d just have to make her way to the side doors and walk through the gardens to get into the main part of the house.
Plan in place, she excused herself from her adoring pack and started to walk in the direction of the gardens. With each step she took, she felt her blood pumping faster through her veins. She could feel his razor sharp blue eyes staring at her as she made her way to the edge of the ballroom. Reminding herself to breathe and stay calm, she forced a smile to her lips as she passed a handful of curious guests. She heard footsteps behind her and almost froze. He was following her. Had Andrew and Paul not been able to rid this place of his unpleasant presence?
Willing herself once again to calm down, she out reached her shaking, clammy hand to open the door. Her palm so sweaty she could barely hold onto the knob as she gave it a twist. Swallowing the lump of panic that had formed in her throat, she tried again. Relief temporarily flooded her when the door swung on its hinges and she was able to slip outside.
Though the gardens were dimly lit, Madison had been in them enough she could navigate them with a blindfold. All but running, she scurried down the steps, around the shrubs, through the bushes and over a concrete bench in an effort to get to the door. She grasped at the brass knob to open the door just as she heard her name being called.
Her hands froze. Her heart froze. Her blood froze. It was his voice. The voice that used to whisper in her ears words of love and affection. The one that made promises of a future filled with love, happiness and children. The voice she’d tried for so long to forget.
“Madison,” he called, turning her skin to gooseflesh.
Ignoring him, she tried to open the door. There were no lights around the door, if she could just slip in and lock the door behind her, he wouldn’t be able to find her. But that was the problem, she couldn’t slip in. The knob wouldn’t turn. It was locked.
“Blast,” she exclaimed quietly through clenched teeth. She remembered she’d once swiped a key to the front door and kept in her reticule. She just hoped it would work for this door.
“Oh, Madison darling, where are you?” Robbie drawled, causing her fingers to tremble as she dug for her key. “I know you’re out here.”
She wanted to yell. She wanted to scream in frustration. She wanted to get this blasted door open. Her fingers closed around the key and she held it tightly as she pulled it from her bag.
“You know you want me,” he said, his voice sounding closer than before.
Her fingers shook as she tried to jam the key into the keyhole. Every time she came close to getting the tip in, her shivering hand would miss and she’d scratch the knob with the end of the key.
“You know, those two body guards you got in there should have known better than to just escort me out,” he said with a chuckle. “They have no idea of our feelings for each other, eh. Oh well, who could fault them for thinking I’m too much a gentleman to jump a fence to get to the woman I love. That’s right, Madison, I said love. I love you. Now come out of hiding so we can talk.”
Madison’s hands briefly stilled from their chore of trying to get the key in the lock. She closed her eyes and shook her head. Love. Did the man really think after all this time he could prance back into her life to say he loved her and everything would be all dandy between them? If that was his great plan at winning her back, he was completely addled.
“Now come on, pet,” he drawled again, making her blood curdle. “Get your luscious derriere out here so we can talk.”
His words shocked her and the key she’d been holding slipped to the ground to make a light ringing clink on the flagstones. All the blood seemed to rush from her head and she began to panic again. What if he’d heard the key hit the ground and came closer? Numbly, she tried to bend down to pick it up. Halfway to the ground, she saw a shadow that caused her to freeze in place.
Too dark to make out the face of the man next to her, she stared in silent shock as a giant hand reached down and picked up the brass key. The man stood up and slipped the key into the lock with extraordinary ease before putting his hands on her waist and helping nudge her into the dark house.
No lamps were lit inside and the pair stood in complete darkness.
“Thank you,” she said at last.
“You’re welcome,” a vaguely familiar voice returned behind her.
They stood together in silence for another moment while Madison waited for her heart to slow down to normal. But the longer she waited, the more she realized it wasn’t slowing down. Robbie was still outside yelling for her and becoming more crass each time he spoke.
“Oh, why is he here?” she muttered to herself. “Why can’t he just leave me alone?” She brought her hands up and covered her face. She felt like she was going to faint. Just as she could feel herself about to crumple to the floor, two strong hands came up and pulled her backward to rest against his hard body.
“It’s all right,” he murmured in her ear. “I told Townson I saw the scoundrel jump the rock wall. He’ll take care of him in a minute.”
Madison nodded. “Thank you,” she said softly. Robbie was right when he pegged Andrew as too good a gentleman to guess Robbie would come back. Andrew was the sort that stayed calm and always gave people the benefit of the doubt—at first. Then, if they betrayed his trust, they normally regretted it.
She’d heard tale from more than one source that he’d been involved in a number of fisticuffs. His most notorious partner being the Duke of Gateway, the man who’d tried to pay him last spring to ruin her sister Brooke. Those two had apparently had their share of scrapes over the past fifteen years and had each broken the others noses at one point. She had no doubt that with Andrew being built like a tree the way he was and Robbie being no bigger than a twig, Andrew could easily break him. “I hope he doesn’t kill him,” she remarked when she heard Andrew’s angry voice.
“He won’t,” the voice behind her said. “Do you love him?”
“Who? Andrew?” she asked, automatically ruling out the chance he could be asking about Robbie. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I? He’s always been kind to me.” Not to mention he was her brother-in-law.
“What of Mr. Swift?”
Madison closed her eyes. “No.”
“Then why don’t you want him hurt?”
“I didn’t say that,” she corrected. “I said I hoped Andrew doesn’t kill him. In case you didn’t see him, Robbie is as big as a quill. All Andrew has to do is hit him once and he’ll snap in half.”
The man chuckled. “You think they’re unevenly matched, do you?”
“Of course,” she burst out with a nervous giggle. “I’m not a coldblooded monster or anything, but I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Robbie roughed up a little. At the same time, I don’t want his blood on Andrew’s hands. Anyone who’s ever seen Andrew knows it wouldn’t take any effort on his part to hurt Robbie.”
“Do you think Mr. Swift is a weakling who cannot defend himself?”
“Yes,” she answered bluntly. “I mean no offense to him in that regard, but the truth is, I’ve seen the man felled by a pebble my sister shot at him from a makeshift slingshot.”
“Was this a reenactment of David and Goliath put on for your father’s church?” the man asked, his chest rumbling with a chuckle.
“No,” she said, shaking her head and trying not to giggle. “Robbie tried to flip Brooke’s skirt up one Sunday after church and after she kicked his hand away, he got angry and tripped her. That’s when she ran inside and took of who knows what piece of her clothing and used it to hurl a rock no bigger than her pinky nail at his head. He fell to the ground like he was a lead weight.”
The stranger laughed quietly and his hands squeezed her a little tighter. “That must have been quite a sight.”
“Oh, it was. But his wailing wasn’t. He moaned and groaned in pain for nearly five unbearably miserable minutes before he realized nobody was paying him any mind. Except me, of course. I was the only one stupid enough to fall for his theatrics,” she said bitterly, shaking her head.
“You’re not stupid,” his calm voice said behind her.
Silence fell over them once again as they listened to heated exchanges and what Madison would swear were sounds of an impending fight outside.
A sudden unmistakable crack followed by a loud thump of a body hitting the ground made Madison jump nearly out of her skin. “Perhaps I should go out there before something else happens,” she said hastily, trying to turn around.
His hands tightened. “No,” he said softly in her ear. “You’re not needed out there.”
“Excuse me?” she asked disbelievingly. “Who are you to tell me where I am or where I’m not needed?”
He didn’t answer.
Who was this man anyway? Who was he to tell her what to do? Did he not realize how much worse it would all be if she didn’t stop Andrew before it was too late? “I really think I need to get out there,” she said again, trying to break his grasp. “Robbie isn’t like Andrew’s other opponents have been. He’s not able to hold his own in a fight.”
“So you want to rescue the man who loves you,” he said bitterly.
“No,” she burst out. “I’ve no romantic notions for Robbie. I just don’t want to see him dead, that’s all.”
“Because then Townson would go to prison or be exiled. Is that it?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her waist to hold her tightly.
“Yes,” she said sharply, trying to free his fingers from the hold they had on her. “I care far more for Andrew than I do for Robbie. I have to stop their fight. Please.”
His hands loosened a fraction, but stayed in position. “I don’t hear either of them anymore,” he said after a minute.
She heard them though. She could pick out Robbie’s pathetic whimpers anywhere. They were distant, but she could hear them all the same. “I think he’s loading him into a carriage,” Madison said inanely.
“Yes,” the man agreed. “Mine.”
“Yours?” she questioned. “Why?”
He didn’t answer her. Instead, he released his hold and from somewhere Madison couldn’t place, the mysterious gentleman lit a short candle and reached around her to hand it to her. “I promised Townson to keep you out of the way,” he explained. “You may go wherever it was you were headed. Just don’t follow me.”
“Why?” she asked, attempting to turn around to face him.
“No,” he said, grabbing her waist again and keeping her from turning to face him.
“Who are you?” she asked, truly curious. She’d just spend the last five or ten minutes in the dark with this man and she had no idea who he was. She’d somewhat recognized his voice, but she couldn’t place it. Not that that meant much. She’d met so many men since she’d come to England it was nearly impossible to keep them all straight when she could see their faces. Their voices were even more difficult for her to place. As odd as it was, she thought a lot of them sounded alike with their English accents and it was hard to tell them apart, especially in the dark.
“Don’t worry about that,” he countered. “Just go.”
She didn’t budge. Curiosity may have been rumored to have killed the cat, but she was no weak declawed cat anymore, she wanted to know who this man who had been holding her in the dark was. “No,” she said defiantly. “I’m not leaving until I know your identity.”
“Who do you think I am?” he asked. His voice so close she could feel his breath fan her ear and blow her hair, making her shiver.
“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I’m not good with voices. But I know for certain you’re not Lord Wray, Lord Drury, or Mr. Chapman. I’d know those three voices anywhere with how much I have to hear them wax and spout ridiculous poetry about my blue eyes looking like endless skies,” she said, sounding annoyed. “I know you’ve spoken to me before though. I just don’t know where.”
“You don’t need to remember where,” he said dismissively. “You just need to go. Now.”
“Not until I have your name,” she said sternly. She looked down at the candle stub she was holding. It hadn’t been very large to start with and now it looked no larger than an acorn. She really needed to get walking if she wanted to have enough light to see to get to a lighted hall. “Please tell me. My candle is about to burn out. I need to start walking, but I won’t leave until I have your name.”
“That’s unwise,” he stated. “You need to go before someone finds us. Townson or your sister will be looking for you soon and it would be best they don’t find us like this.”
Madison fought the urge to snort. “You clearly don’t know my sister,” she said dryly. If Brooke found them alone in the dark, she’d turn her eyes and pretend it never happened. Well, if Madison asked her to, that is. First, Brooke would probably try and talk her into letting the rumor slip if the match was to Madison’s advantage.
“I know her husband well enough,” the man countered. “He wouldn’t be happy about this.”
“He’d handle it however Brooke told him,” Madison countered. Andrew wasn’t one for gossip in the first place and he loved his wife and her family well enough that she was certain he wouldn’t call this man out or start rumors about them, especially if he was the one who asked him to keep her out of his fight with Robbie.
“That’s because she leads him around by his prick,” the man said disdainfully.
If the statement had been made about anyone else she would have died from laughter on the spot. But she knew better than anyone that Andrew truly loved his wife and Brooke undoubtedly returned his love in equal measures. “That was a nasty thing to say,” she said sharply. “I demand you apologize.”
He grumbled something she couldn’t understand then mumbled, “Sorry, I forgot for a second I was in the presence of a lady. I’ll choose my words more carefully in the future.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she shot back hotly. “Apologize for your unflattering remark about my sister and her husband.”
He scoffed. “Fine. I apologize. From now on I’ll say, ‘Of course he will, he’s the most besotted man in England.’ Does that meet your approval?”
“You’re rather rude, did you know?” she asked sarcastically. Of course he knew he was rude. He probably prided himself on it.
“Thank you,” he said genuinely. “Believe it or not you just complimented me.”
“It wasn’t meant as such,” she retorted. “Now tell me who you are so I can go before my candle burns out. The flame is already burning the tips of my fingers because it’s so close to where I’m holding it on the bottom.”
“Then you better start walking,” he said, giving her a gentle shove forward.
Thinking she was going to outsmart him, she quickly whipped back around to get a peek at his identity. But in her haste, she made an error in judgment. She forgot to block the candle flame when she spun, and the quick spinning motion put out the flame right before she was able to get a glimpse of him.
“Good work,” he said sarcastically.
She ground her teeth. This man was absolutely intolerable. Why on earth had Andrew asked him to keep her occupied while he took care of Robbie?
Either he must be a mind reader or she’d spoken her thoughts aloud because the infuriating man said, “Because I was—”
The rest of his words were abruptly cut off when the door behind him suddenly swung open and revealed a very displeased Andrew. “What are you doing,” he hissed at her guest.
“Exactly what you told me to. I kept her away from him,” the mystery man said calmly. His back was to the gardens and the only light streaming into the room was behind him, making it possible for her to see his form, but not his face.
Andrew being directly underneath a lamp was fully visible and Madison was sure she’d never seen him so mad. “Well, you’ve done your job. Now let her go. Madison, come with me, I’ll take you to Brooke and she can see you to your room, if you’d like.”
Madison went to sidestep her mysterious man, discreetly trying to glance up to see who she’d been with. Almost out of the doorway, she froze when another voice, one that she and every member of the Banks family knew well, entered the scene. “Well, what do we have here?” Lady Algen said waspishly.
Madison noticed she wasn’t the only one who stiffened at the comment. Lady Algen, who was London’s—no, England’s—no, the continent’s—most vicious gossip hungry harpy, stood with her hands on her hips, grinning like a jackal. This did not look good. Turning her eyes from Andrew to the back of the man she hadn’t been able to glimpse on her way out the door, she knew trouble was about to ensue and all three of them were powerless to stop it.
“What irony,” Lady Algen declared, licking her lips. “I was present at the ruination of your sister with his man,” she gestured to Andrew, “I believe I also brought to light your other sister’s scandalous ways.” She shook her head and clucked her tongue. “I just had no idea it would come to this. Miss Banks, I honestly thought you were better than that.”
“That’s enough,” Andrew said sternly, making both Madison and Lady Algen freeze in terror. “Nothing is going on here. Go back and enjoy the ball while I return Madison to her sister.”
Lady Algen snorted. “I don’t think so. I shall escort her to her sister. Your wife will be in need of a shoulder to cry on when she finds out her husband has been trysting with her sister in the corners of her own gardens, during a ball she’s hosting no less.”
Madison gasped. Lady Algen thought she and Andrew were trysting? Did that mean she hadn’t seen the man in the doorway? She peeked over to the open door and he was no longer standing by the door. The hall was so dark she couldn’t see if he was even in there or not. Blast the man.
“My wife will not require a shoulder to cry on,” Andrew said smoothly. “There is nothing going on between Madison and myself that my wife is not aware of.”
“So she approves of your activities, then?” the old harpy asked with a disdainful tone.
“There are no ‘activities’, real or imagined, between us,” Andrew said defensively.
“So are you denying that the two of you were trysting in the dark?” she asked doubtfully.
“Come along, Madison,” Andrew said, ignoring Lady Algen and offering his arm to Madison.
Wearily, she took his arm and took a step when Brooke came running up. “Thank goodness,” she said excitedly as she ran to embrace Madison. “Don’t worry, everything’s fine now.”
“Is that so?” Lady Algen asked archly. “Are you aware your husband and sister have been keeping each other company tonight?”
“No, they haven’t,” Brooke said fiercely, putting her hands on her hips. “My husband was disposing of some rubbish, so to speak and Madison was with—”
“Me,” growled an angry voice that belonged to the unidentified man coming out of the doorway, grabbing Madison’s attention and making her gasp. “Townson asked Madison and me to wait over here until he came and got us to formally announce our engagement.”
“Your engagement?” Lady Algen gasped, eyes darting back and forth between the four of them.
“Yes, our engagement,” he confirmed. “Now, we shall all go back into the ballroom and allow Townson to make the announcement. Come, sweet,” he finished, offering his arm to Madison.
Madison stood numb. Closing her eyes, she silently prayed the ground would suddenly open and swallow her whole while an angel came down from heaven and wiped clean the memory of anyone that knew her. This was bad. This was beyond bad. This was catastrophic proportions bad. This was attempt to swim across the ocean back home to New York bad.
Catching sight of Lady Algen’s skeptical stare, she swallowed the uncomfortable lump in her throat and linked arms to the man she was about to become formally betrothed to. If she had been anyone else watching the scene, or even if it had been anyone else she had just become engaged to, she would have laughed at the twin looks of horror both Andrew and Brooke sported.
“Well, I never,” Lady Algen said, shaking her head. “I didn’t believe she’d go through with it.”
Madison’s escort stopped and turned to face Lady Algen. “Madam, you’d be wise to hold your tongue,” he counseled in a low, sharp tone. “The only thing you witnessed here tonight was the formal engagement announcement. Nothing else. If I hear even a hint of a rumor circulating suggesting anything else, you and anyone associated with you, will be finding out just how exciting the wilds of Australia really are.” He paused for a minute to let her brain work out his words. “Don’t think I don’t know of your involvement in the incident that took place at my house more than six years ago.”
Lady Algen took in a sharp intake of air and ran off as if she were being chased by a lion.
Turning back to face Madison, her nearly betrothed sent her a devious smile. “You just had to see my face, didn’t you,” he drawled tauntingly. “And now, you’ll get to see it every day for the rest of your life.”
Madison and Brooke gasped in unison at his cruel remark. Andrew, however, was not one to stand idle and watch while someone was taunted. Instead, he grabbed the man’s arm, spun him around and delivered a swift, hard punch to the other man’s midsection, making him gasp at the sudden loss of air, but showing no other signs of distress.
“Take that as a warning,” Andrew said evenly. “Come, ladies, let’s go announce this confounded engagement before Lady Algen does.”
That was it. That was how Madison now found herself, four weeks, two over-chaperoned carriage rides, and six obligatory waltzes later, looking into the cold blue eyes of her bridegroom.
And all she could think was in a way he was right, if she hadn’t been so blasted interested in discovering his identity, she wouldn’t be here making vows to look at his unyielding, handsome face for the rest of her life.
Curiosity may not have killed the cat, but it sure didn’t do her any favors.