Mount Street, London
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 to subside....
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 state."
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 one.
"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 out."
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 speech.
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 since."
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 you privately."
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 his reaction.
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 went black.
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 state.
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 watched.
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 collapsed."
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 clothes.
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 soon enough.
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 him.
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 others.
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.