A WICKED DAWN
3 am, May 25th, 1825
He was drunk. Gloriously drunk. More drunk--drunker--than he'd ever been.
Not that he made a habit of inebriation, but last night, or more specifically
and especially this morning, was a once in a lifetime occasion. After
eight long years, he was free.
Lucien Michael Ashford, 6th Viscount Calverton, sauntered along Mount
Street, nonchalantly twirling his ebony cane, a smile of unfettered joy
curving his lips.
He was twenty-nine, yet today qualified as the first of his adult life,
the first day he could call said life his own. Even better, as of yesterday,
he was rich. Fabulously, fantastically--legally--wealthy. There was not
a great deal more he could think of to wish for. If he hadn't been wary
of falling on his face, he would have danced down the deserted street.
The moon was out, lighting the pavements, casting deep shadows. About
him, London lay sleeping, but the capital, even at this hour, was never
truly silent; from a distance, distorted by the stone facades all around,
came the jingle of harness, the hollow clop of hooves, a disembodied call.
Although even here, in the most fashionable quarter, danger sometimes
lurked in the shadows, he felt no threat. His senses were still operational,
and despite his state he'd taken care to walk evenly; any viewing him
with felonious intent would see a tall, sufficiently well-built, gracefully
athletic gentleman swinging a cane that might, and indeed did, conceal
a swordstick, and move on to more likely prey.
He'd left his club in St. James and the company of a group of friends
half an hour ago, electing to walk home the better to clear his head of
the fumes elicited by a quantity of the very best French brandy. His celebrations
had been restrained due to the simple fact that none of said friends--indeed
no one other than his mother and his wily old banker, Robert Child--knew
anything of his previous state, the dire straits to which he and his family
had been brought by his sire prior to his death eight years before, the
perilous situation from which he'd spent the last eight years clawing
his way back, and from which yesterday he'd finally won free.
The fact they'd had no idea what he was celebrating had not inhibited
his friends from joining him. A long night filled with wine, song and
the simple pleasures of male companionship had ensued.
A pity his oldest friend, his cousin Martin, now Dexter, earl of, wasn't
presently in London. Then again, Martin was doubtless enjoying himself
at his home in the north, wallowing in the benefits accruing to a recently
married man; he had married Amanda Cynster a week ago.
Grinning to himself, Luc mentally--superiorly--shook his head over his
cousin's weakness, his surrender to love. Reaching his house, he turned
to the shallow steps leading to the front door-his head spun for an instant,
then righted. Carefully, he walked up the steps, halted before the door,
then hunted in his pocket for his keys.
They slipped through his fingers twice before he grasped them and hauled
them forth. The ring in his palm, he shuffled the keys, frowning as he
tried to identify the one for the front door. Then he found it. Grasping
it, he squinted, guiding it to keyhole...after the third try, it slid
home; he turned and heard the tumblers fall.
Returning the keys to his pocket, he grasped the knob and sent the door
swinging wide. He stepped over the threshold--
A dervish erupted from the black hole of the area steps--he caught only
a fleeting glimpse, had only an instant's warning before the figure barrelled
past him, one elbow knocking him off balance. He staggered and fetched
up against the hall wall.
That brief human contact, deadened by layers of fabric though it was,
sent sensation rushing through him, and told him unequivocally who the
dervish was. Amelia Cynster. Twin to his cousin's new wife, long-time
friend of his family's who he'd known since she was in nappies. An as-yet-unmarried
female with a backbone of steel. Cloaked and hooded, she plunged into
the dim hall, came to an abrupt halt, then whirled and faced him.
The wall behind his shoulders was the only thing keeping him upright.
He stared, astounded, utterly bemused...waited for the effect of her touch
She made an angry, frustrated sound, dashed back to the door, grabbed
it and propelled it shut. The loss of the moonlight left him blinking,
eyes adjusting to the dark. The door closed, she swung around; her back
to the panel, she glared--he felt it.
"What the devil's the matter with you?" she hissed.
"Me?" Easing his shoulders from the wall, he managed to find
his balance. "What the damn hell are you doing here?"
He couldn't even begin to imagine. Moonlight streamed in through the fanlight,
passing over their heads to strike the pale tiles of the hall. In the
diffused light, he could just make out her features, fine and delicate
in an oval face, framed by golden curls tumbling under her hood.
She straightened; chin rising, she set the hood back. "I wanted to
speak with you privately."
"It's three o'clock in the morning."
"I know! I've been waiting since one. But I wanted to speak with
you without anyone else knowing--I can hardly come here during the day
and demand to speak privately with you, can I?"
"No--for a very good reason." She was unmarried, and so was
he. If she wasn't standing before the door he'd be tempted to open it
and...he frowned. "You didn't come alone?"
"Of course not. I've a footman outside."
He put a hand to his brow. "Oh. Good." This was getting complicated.
"For goodness sake! Just listen. I know all about your family's financial
That captured his immediate and complete attention. Noting it, she nodded.
"Exactly. But you needn't worry I'll tell anyone--indeed, quite the
opposite. That's why I needed to speak with you alone. I've a proposition
to put to you."
His wits were reeling--he couldn't think what to say. Couldn't imagine
what she was going to say.
She didn't wait, but drew breath and launched in. "It must be plain,
even to you, that I've been looking about for a husband, yet the truth
is there's not a single eligible gentleman I feel the least bit inclined
to marry. But now Amanda's gone, I find it boring in the extreme continuing
as an unmarried young lady." She paused, then went on, "That's
"Point two is that you and your family are in straitened circumstances."
She held up a staying hand. "You needn't try to tell me otherwise--over
the past weeks I've spent a lot of time here, and generally about with
your sisters. Emily and Anne don't know, do they? You needn't fear I've
told them--I haven't. But when one is that close, little things do show.
I realized a few weeks ago and much I've noticed since has confirmed my
deduction. You're in dun territory--no! Don't say a word. Just hear me
He blinked--he was barely keeping up with the flow of her revelations;
he didn't at present have any brain left over to cope with formulating
She eyed him with typical ascerbidity, apparently reassured when he remained
mute. "I know you are not to blame--it was your father who ran through
the blunt, wasn't it? I've heard the grande dames say often enough that
it was a good thing he died before he crippled the estate, but the truth
is he did bring your family to point non plus before he broke his neck,
and you and your mother have been carefully preserving appearances ever
Her voice softened. "It must have been a Herculean task, but you've
done brilliantly-I'm sure no one else has guessed. And, of course, I can
see why you did it--with not just Emily and Anne, but Portia and Penelope,
too, to establish, being known as paupers would be disastrous."
She frowned as if checking a mental list. "So that's point two--that
it's imperative you and your family remain among the haut ton but you
don't have the wherewithal to support such a lifestyle. You've been hanging
on by your fingernails for years. Which brings me to point three. You."
She fixed her gaze on his face. "You don't appear to have considered
marrying as a way to repair your finances. I imagine you didn't want to
burden yourself with a wife who might have expensive expectations, quite
aside from not wanting to burden yourself with a wife and any associated
demands at all. That's point three and the reason I needed to speak with
Gathering herself, she tipped her chin higher. "I believe that we--you
and I--could reach a mutually beneficial agreement. My dowry's considerable--more
than sufficient to resuscitate the Ashford family fortunes, at least by
enough to get by. And you and I have known each other forever--it's not
as if we couldn't rub along well enough, and I know your family well,
and they know me, and--"
"Are you suggesting we marry?"
His thunderstruck tones had her glaring.
"Yes! And before you start on about how nonsensical a notion it is,
just consider. It's not as if I expect--"
He missed whatever she wasn't expecting. He stared at her through the
dimness. Her lips continued to move; presumably she was talking. He tried
to listen, but his mind refused to cooperate. It had frozen--seized--on
the one vital, crucial, unbelievable fact.
She was offering to be his wife.
If the sky had fallen he couldn't have been more shocked. Not by her suggestion--by
He wanted to marry her--wanted her as his wife.
A minute ago, he hadn't had a clue. Ten minutes ago, he would have laughed
the idea to scorn. Now...he simply knew, with an absolute, unwavering,
frighteningly powerful certainty. A feeling that rose through him, stirring
impulses he always took care to keep hidden behind his elegant facade.
He refocused on her, truly let himself look at her, something he now realized
he'd not previously done. Previously, she'd been an irksome distraction--a
female to whom he was physically attracted but could not, given his then
lack of fortune, ever conceivably approach. He'd consciously set her aside,
to one side, one woman he knew he could never touch. Forbidden, and even
more so because of their families' close ties.
"--and there's no need to imagine--"
Golden ringlets, rosebud lips, and the lithe, sensual figure of a Greek
goddess. Cornflower blue eyes, brown brows and lashes, skin like the richest
cream; he couldn't see in the dimness but his memory supplied the image.
And reminded him that behind the feminine delicacy lay a quick mind and
a heart he'd never known to be at fault. And a spine of pure steel.
For the first time, he let himself see her as a woman he could take. Have.
Possess. To whatever degree he wished.
His reaction to the mental image was ruthlessly decisive.
She was right about one thing--he'd never wanted a wife, never wanted
the emotional ties, the closeness. He did, however, want her--of that
he entertained not the slightest doubt.
"--any reason to know. It'll work perfectly well--all we need do--"
She was right there, too--the way she'd framed her proposition, it could
indeed work. Because she was offering, and all he had to do was...
Her tone jerked his mind from the primitive plane on which it had been
wandering. She'd folded her arms. She was frowning. He couldn't see but
he wouldn't have been surprised if she was tapping her toe.
He was suddenly very aware that she stood within arms' reach.
Her eyes narrowed, glittering in the weak light. "So what's your
considered opinion--do you think us marrying is a good idea?"
He met her gaze, then raised one hand, lightly traced her jaw, tipped
up her face. Openly, unhurriedly, studied her features, wondered what
she would do if he simply...he fixed his gaze on her eyes. "Yes.
Let's get married."
Wariness stole into her eyes. He wondered what she'd seen in his face;
he reassembled his social mask. Smiled. "Marrying you"--his
smile deepened--"will be entirely my pleasure."
Releasing her, he swept her a magnificient bow--
A mistake. One he had only the most fleeting inkling of before his vision
He collapsed on the floor at her feet.
Amelia stared at his crumpled form. For one moment, she was completely
at a loss--halfexpected him to rise and make some joke. Laugh....
He didn't move.
No answer. Wary, she edged around until she could see his face. His long
lashes were black crescents smudged over his pale cheeks. His brows, the
planes of his face, looked oddly relaxed; his lips, long, thin, so often
set in a severe line, were gently curved....
She let out her breath in an exasperated hiss. Drunk! Damn him!
When she'd wound up her courage, come out so late at night, stood in the
cold dark for hours, then managed to get through her rehearsed proposition
without a single fluster--and he was drunk?
In the instant before her temper took flight, she remembered he'd agreed.
Perfectly lucidly. He might have been giddy, but he hadn't been incapable--indeed,
until he'd fallen, she'd had no idea, hadn't been able to tell from his
manner or his speech. Drunks slurred, didn't they? But she knew his voice,
his diction--he hadn't sounded the least bit odd.
Well, the fact he'd kept quiet and let her talk without interruption had
been odd, but it had worked to her advantage. If he'd made his usual barbed
comments, picked at her arguments, she'd never have got them all out.
And he'd agreed. She'd heard him, and, more importantly, she was sure
he'd heard himself. He might be all but unconscious now, but when he awoke,
he'd remember. And that was all that mattered.
Euphoria--a sense of victory--seized her. She'd done it! Staring down
at him, she could hardly believe it--but she was here, and so was he;
she wasn't dreaming.
She'd come to his house and made her proposition, and he'd accepted.
Her relief was so great it left her giddy. A chair stood nearby, against
the wall; she sank onto it, relaxed back, and studied his recumbent form.
He looked so peaceful, slumped on the tiles. She decided it was a good
thing he'd been drunk--an unexpected bonus; she was perfectly certain
he didn't normally imbibe to excess. The concept was so unLuclike; he
was always so rigidly in control. It must have been some special occasion--some
friend's great good fortune or some such--to have resulted in his present
His long limbs were tangled; his face might look peaceful, but his body...she
sat up. If she was going to marry him, then presumably she should ensure
he didn't wake with a cricked neck or a twisted spine. She considered
him; shifting, even dragging him, wasn't an option. He was over six feet
tall and broadshouldered and while he was rangy and lean, his bones were
typical of men of his background--heavy. The remembered thud as they'd
hit the floor assured her she'd never manage to meaningfully move him.
With a sigh, she stood, gathered her cloak, and walked into the drawing
room. The bellpull was by the mantelpiece; she tugged it, then returned
to the door. Almost closing it, she stood in the dark drawing room and
Minutes ticked by. She was about to go back and tug the bellpull again
when she heard a door squeak. A glimmer of light appeared down the corridor
leading to the kitchens; it steadily grew brighter. Then its bearer halted,
gasped, then with a muttered exclamation hurried forward.
Amelia watched as Cottsloe, Luc's butler, bent over his master, checking
the pulse at his throat. Relieved, Cottsloe straightened and stared; she
hoped he imagined Luc had been in the drawing room, rung for assistance,
then staggered into the hall and collapsed. She waited for Cottsloe to
summon a footman. Instead, the old man shook his head, picked up Luc's
cane, and set it on the hall table along with his candle.
Then Cottsloe bent and tried to heft Luc to his feet.
Amelia suddenly realized there might be reasons Cottsloe, kind old Cottsloe
who doted on Luc and the whole family, might not want to summon help,
might not want it known that Luc was drunk. But it was ludicrous--Cottsloe
was in his fifties, shortish and tending rotund. He managed to get Luc
halfupright, but there was no way he could support such a heavy and unwieldy
body far, especially not up the stairs.
With an inward sigh, Amelia opened the door. "Cottsloe?"
With a hiss, he turned, wide-eyed. Slipping through the door, she waved
him to silence. "We had a private meeting--we were talking, and he
Even in the dimness, she saw the old man's blush.
"I'm afraid he's a touch under the weather, miss."
"Indeed, he's quite drunk. If I help, do you think we can get him
upstairs? His room's on the first floor, isn't it?"
Cottsloe was nonplussed, uncertain of the proprieties, but he did need
help. And Luc had first call on his loyalty. He nodded. "Just along
from the top of the stairs. If we can get him that far...."
Amelia ducked under Luc's dangling arm, and hauled it across her shoulders.
She and Cottsloe staggered until they'd hefted Luc upright; supporting
him like a sack of meal between them, they turned toward the stairs. Luckily,
Luc regained some degree of consciousness; when they reached the first
stair, he got his feet under him and started, with their assistance, to
climb, albeit in a sagging, lurching way. Amelia tried not to think of
what might happen if he fell backward. Pressing against him, steadying
him, brought home just how solid and muscled he was underneath his elegant
Guessing which way his stagger would send him next, and countering his
tipping weight, became a game that left both her and Cottsloe puffing
by the time they gained the top of the stairs. Their charge remained oblivious,
his lips gleefully curved, his brow unfurrowed under his midnight black
hair. His eyes hadn't opened. Amelia was sure that if she and Cottsloe
both let go, Luc would crumple in a heap once more.
Between them, they steered him down the corridor, then Cottsloe reached
ahead and flung open a door. Her hands sunk in Luc's coat, Amelia pulled,
then shoved, and sent him reeling him into the room; she hurriedly followed,
hauling to keep him from sprawling face down on the floor.
"This way." Cottsloe tugged Luc toward the huge four-poster
bed. Amelia pushed. They got him to the bed, then had to shuffle him about.
Finally, he stood with his back to the bed.
They both let go; he stood there, swaying. Amelia placed her palm against
his chest and pushed. Like a felled tree he toppled, landing flat on his
back on the silk counterpane. The counterpane was quite old, but looked
comfortable; as if to illustrate, Luc sighed and turned, snuggling his
cheek into the midnight blue softness.
On another sigh, every last remnant of tension left his body. He lay relaxed,
lips curved as if hugging some pleasant memory close.
Despite all, Amelia felt her lips lift. He was so atrociously handsome,
the silky locks of his jet-black hair feathering his pale cheeks, his
long-fingered hands relaxed by his face, his long body lying boneless
in oddly innocent slumber.
"I can manage now, miss."
She glanced at Cottsloe, nodded. "Indeed." She turned to the
door. "I'll let myself out. Don't forget to bolt the front door on
your way down."
"Of course, miss." Cottsloe followed her to the door; with a
bow, he saw her out.
As she descended the stairs, Amelia wondered what poor old Cottsloe thought.
Regardless, he wasn't the sort to spread rumors, and he'd learn the truth
When she and Luc announced their betrothal.
That thought was stunning--even though it had been her goal, she still
hadn't assimilated the fact she'd attained it, and so easily. Collecting
the footman she'd left waiting by the area steps, she headed home through
the quiet streets.
Dawn was not far off when she slipped into her parents' house in Upper
Brook Street. The footman was an old friend who, having a ladyfriend himself,
quite understood--or at least thought he did; he wouldn't give her away.
By the time she reached her room she was so buoyed by her success she
could have danced.
Undressing quickly, she slid between her sheets, lay back--and grinned
widely. She could barely believe it, yet she knew it was true. Luc and
she would marry, and soon.
To be his wife, to have him as her husband--even though she'd only faced
the fact recently, that had been her unacknowledged dream for years. At
the beginning of this Season, she and her twin, Amanda, despairing of
fate ever handing them the right mate, had decided to take matters into
their own hands. They'd each formed a plan. Amanda's had been straightforward
and direct; she'd followed her path to Dexter; last week she'd married
She, Amelia, had had her own plan. Luc had been in her mind from the outset,
a nebulous yet recognizable shadow, but she'd known the difficulties she
would face with him. Having known him all her life, she was well aware
that he had no thoughts of marriage--no positive ones, anyway. And he
was smart, clever--far too quick, too mentally resistant, to be easily
manipulated. Indeed, he was unquestionably the last gentleman any sane
lady would set her heart upon.
That being so, she'd determinedly divided her plan into stages. The first
had been to establish beyond all doubt who was the right gentleman for
her--which of all the eligibles within the ton, regardless of whether
they were thinking of marriage or not, was the one she wanted above all
Her search had brought her back to Luc, left her with him and only him
in her sights. The second stage of her plan involved getting what she
wanted from him.
That was not going to be easy. She knew what she wanted--a marriage based
on love, on sharing, a partnership that extended further and reached deeper
than the superficialities of married life. Ultimately, a family--not just
the amalgam of his and hers, but theirs, a new entity.
All that she wanted, with a desire that was absolute. How to persuade
Luc to fall in with her plans, how to bring him to share her aspirations....
A novel strategy--one he wouldn't immediately see through and counter--had
clearly been necessary. She'd realized that getting him to marry her first
and fall in love with her subsequently was the only way forward, yet how
to accomplish the former without the latter had initially stumped her.
Then she'd noticed the oddity of Emily's and Anne's gowns. After that,
alerted, she'd noticed any number of minor details, until she was sure
beyond all doubt that the Ashfords needed money.
Money she had in abundance; her considerable dowry would pass to her husband
on her marriage.
She'd spent hours rehearsing her arguments, laying out the salient facts,
reassuring him that theirs would be a marriage of convenience, that she
wouldn't make unwanted emotional demands, that she was prepared to let
him go his own way as long as she could similarly go hers. All lies, of
course, but she had to be hardheaded; this was Luc she was dealing with--without
those lies, she could see no chance of getting his ring on her finger,
and that had to be her first goal.
A goal she'd almost realized. Outside her window, the world was stirring.
Her heart light, buoyed by a feeling of rightness, of satisfaction and
triumph, she closed her eyes. And tried to rein in her joy. Gaining Luc's
agreement to their wedding was not an end, but a beginning, the first
active step in her long-range plan. Her plan to translate her most precious
dream into reality.
She was one step--one big step--closer to her ultimate goal.
© Savdek Management Pty Ltd.