Book 2 > Danby
Arrington’s funeral was over but the pall of death still clung to Nicholas Beckford, Baron Edgeworth. Damn his friend for cheating on his wife and getting himself killed. Nick grimaced as he stared out the coach window into the driving rain. He’d curse Lady Arrington too, but her actions were more debatable. On the one hand, she had been a victim of cruel and heartless treatment. Adultery was despicable and unworthy of anyone who called himself a gentleman. He didn’t give a damn if his opinion was the minority. It was the correct belief.
Still…he drummed his fingers against his thigh. Arrington hadn’t deserved to be bludgeoned to death with his favorite fire poker. Forced to beg forgiveness on his knees—yes. Denied conjugal rights until such time Lady Arrington deemed him forgiven—absolutely. Made to grovel daily and purchase incredibly expensive baubles—without a doubt. Never trusted again—perhaps. But beaten to death? A shudder ran through Nick as he once again pictured the scene.
Funerals were never fun for anyone, unless it was your spouse’s funeral whom you hated and were glad to see them go. He’d seen a few of those barely contained expressions of relief at a scattering of funerals in his thirty-one years. A grim smile pulled at his lips. He’d never have to worry his spouse would be standing at his casket counting the seconds until she could see him into the dirt and find the happiness she really wanted. That had never been a concern, because he would never take a wife.
The drunken agreement to never marry he’d made with his old chums several nights ago after Arrington’s funeral wouldn’t prevent him from wedding. He wasn’t afraid of ending up like Arrington as his bachelor friends claimed they were. No, he feared destroying a woman as he’d done once before. He gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. Funerals always unhinged the lock on the memories he kept securely bolted. Several glasses of whiskey would fix that.
As the coach slowed, Nick jumped out of his carriage before his coachman, Peters, was able to bring it to a full stop.
“Milord!” Peters gasped behind him.
Nick swung around while his feet sank into the mud and he raised a hand to shield his eyes from the downpour. He waved Peters to leave. “Go home and come back in several hours. No need for you to wait here in the cold.”
“You’re sure?” Peters pulled his coat under his chin, narrowing his gaze.
Nick smiled. “Have you ever known me to be unsure of anything?”
“No, milord.” Peters whistled to the horses as he urged them to go.
Nick turned and made his way inside the Bright Star Inn and out of the rain. He ducked under the entranceway and shook the rainwater from his hair as he entered the dingy, overcrowded inn. He inhaled an appreciative whiff of the cigar smoke swirling in the air, the sweet smell of ale and liquor—nothing fine or fancy here—and the enticing scent of roasted meat and bread wafting into the pub from the private dining room.
He grunted as he pulled off his overcoat and strode to the stools.
The barkeep, Blakely, tilted his head. “The usual, Edgeworth?”
“The usual won’t do tonight.” Nick tossed his coat over the wooden stool beside him and met the man’s friendly gaze.
“Aye.” Blakely brought out the most expensive bottle of whiskey they had, good but certainly not comparable to the whiskey at White’s. But White’s had nosy people who knew Nick and his family.
Blakely slid the glass towards Nick, without the whiskey so much as sloshing. Nick raised an appreciative eyebrow.
With care, Blakely wiped his hands on a towel, slung it over his shoulder and leaned an elbow on the wood. He raised his bushy black eyebrows as he glanced between Nick and the glass of whiskey. “You’ve got the look of a man who’s had a three-dram day.”
Nick downed the liquor, catching his breath at its pleasurable burn. He cleared his throat and pushed the glass towards Blakely. “I’ve had at least a four-dram day, but it’s debatable. I’ll not make for good company tonight.”
Blakely nodded without questioning and poured Nick another dram before returning to his other customers.
That was exactly why Nick loved this place. No one questioned him here. They didn’t know his past, and they didn’t care. He wasn’t Baron Edgeworth to them. He was simply Edgeworth—a man liked for his occasional generous rounds of drinks, jokes and political views. Very superficial and perfect.
The proprietor was the only one who knew he was Baron Edgeworth and Nick paid the man handsomely to keep it that way. Not living in the area made it an easy task to keep his title unknown. He’d made the right choice coming here tonight. He didn’t want to feel alone. Throngs of travelers, and men and women from the gentry, occupied this pub. He’d be surrounded by people, without actually having to worry he’d know anyone who would dare to aggravate him with small talk or inquires of his family, or worse, the funeral.
The only member of the ton who ever ventured to this side of town was his cousin Drew, and Drew hadn’t been here in weeks since his wife Charlotte was close to delivering their first child. The thought of Charlotte being forced into confinement and having to give up starring in plays at the Sans Peril Theatre made Nick chuckle. He hadn’t been surprised when Drew hadn’t forced Charlotte to quit acting the moment he learned she was with child. Nick ignored the jealous twinge that accosted him. He didn’t want to be Drew. His cousin was hopelessly besotted with his wife and let her do whatever she wanted. Nothing else could explain why Drew agreed to Charlotte’s demand to stay in Town for the winter.
He sipped his whiskey slower this time. It may be a four-dram day, but he despised sloppy drunkenness in any man, no matter the reason. The last leg of his return trip from the funeral had been hell because of the weather. He should have stopped, but the need to reach home quickly plagued him and he’d ridden straight through. Foolish, considering when he’d spotted his opulent unoccupied mansion in Mayfair, dread had seized him. He’d barked an order at Peters to bring him here instead and then promptly apologized for being such an unmitigated ass.
Nick swigged the last of his drink and scowled. The liquor was not silencing the clamoring demons as it usually did. He motioned Blakely back over. “Another, please.”
Blakely poured as he asked, “Are your troubles still with you?”
Nick nodded. Arrington’s funeral reminded Nick of Amelia Abbot, likely because she’d been childhood friends with Arrington. Innocent Amelia, who he drove to her death with his callousness and need to possess Elizabeth. He pressed his fingers into his temples.
Blakely frowned, making the red scar above his lip turn white. “I hate to further sour your mood. I know you said you’d be poor company, but your friend is headed this way.”
Nick swiveled around on his stool and groaned. His cousin Drew strode towards him with a scowl fierce enough to scare any man who didn’t know him. But Nick did. He frowned. Why the devil was Drew here? Within seconds, Drew lifted Nick’s coat and sat beside him. “Hospitable today, I see.”
“I left my hospitality on the muddy, bumpy road. I came here to be alone, not to be hospitable,” Nick growled.
Amusement flickered in Drew’s eyes. “Blakely—”
The barkeep slid a glass of whiskey towards Drew. “Here you go.”
Drew took a sip before speaking. “That’s a fine barkeep to always remember what a man prefers.”
“I do my best,” Blakely said before moving away.
Nick glared. “What are you doing here?”
“Grandfather and your mother forced me here, so you can quit glaring at me. Believe me, I didn’t willingly leave my wife’s tender embrace to come search you out. I received two letters today demanding I hand deliver a letter from Grandfather and watch as you read it. Apparently, neither he nor your mother trusts you to open a letter from them.” Drew reached inside his coat and pulled out a sealed envelope. “I should warn you, your mother has enlisted Grandfather’s help in bringing you to task on getting married.”
A ripple of unease crawled its way down Nick’s spine. If his mother had finally managed to get his grandfather on her side in her attempt to force Nick to wed, it could be a definite problem. So far, he’d managed to ignore his mother’s demands he marry and give her a grandchild. It hadn’t been overly hard since his father hadn’t sided with her. Had something changed? Renewed tension coiled in his shoulders. “Give me the letter.” His words came out harsh and clipped.
Drew’s eyebrows came together. “Not so fast. I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you of the time you delivered such a letter to me not so long ago.”
Nick froze while reaching for the letter. Good God. Was Grandfather going to demand he marry or be cut off from his inheritance? The surly old goat had the power to make it so. Nick tried to picture being penniless or being married to a woman who expected him to love, protect and cherish her above all else. Both circumstances left a sour taste his mouth. He didn’t need wealth to survive, but he’d rather not be poor, if given the choice. Yet he certainly couldn’t promise to love any woman. To love someone he’d have to like himself first. He damned sure never expected that to happen with his past sins. He snatched the letter out of his cousin’s hand and ripped it open. Better to know his fate than not. If he was going to have pockets to let, he’d rather know now.
Grandson, I expect you at Danby castle by December twenty-fifth with your bride in tow. If I don’t see you and your beautiful new wife by the stroke of midnight, I’ve made all necessary arrangements to ensure your life is as miserable as your mother—my bothersome daughter—has made mine this last year. Your obstinacy in denying her fondest wish has driven me from my study where she hounds me nightly to beg for my interference. This is unacceptable. Step lively, Edgeworth. If you need help finding a wife I’ve a few ladies in mind. You’ve only to write and request my help.
Nick’s blood ran cold. His cousin’s low whistle filled his ears. “You’re caught now. Sorry, chap. I know how you feel about getting married.”
He hadn’t realized he’d read his grandfather’s words out loud. Crumpling the paper, he faced Drew to expel the impression that any threat could force him to marry. His blistering words died in his throat. Behind Drew stood a petite woman with the snowiest skin he’d ever seen. The sable ermine hood drawn close around her heart-shaped face created a striking contrast with her fair skin. Bright blue eyes narrowed keenly on him. Long dormant lust rippled through his body. “Might I help you, miss?”
“I’m hoping we can help each other.”
Her husky voice sent another jolt of lust through him that shook him to his core. He shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. “You’ve all my attention.”
She pulled her hood back and shook out her thick black hair. A hundred wicked ways he wanted to help her filled his head. As if she read his thoughts, a cynical smile twisted her perfect red lips. She stepped closer to him, forcing Drew to scoot his stool to make room for her. The scent of jasmine surrounded him and he wanted to bury his nose in her hair.
Her pink tongue darted out to lick her lips. Was she nervous? Of him? Immediately, he wanted to put her at ease. “I won’t bite.” Yet. And only if she liked that sort of thing. For surely, this was a woman seeking a client for the night. Fortune had taken pity on him tonight to put such an exquisite creature in his path.
A slight frown puckered the skin between her eyebrows. “I’m not afraid you’ll bite. I’m afraid you’ll say no to my proposition.”
“Darling, I assure you I’ve no desire to say no to anything you wish of me.” To his right, Drew snorted and the woman shot a scalding gaze his way. Brava her. She had bollocks.
“Might I have a private word?” Her voice had grown low and unsure.
“Certainly.” Nick forced his gaze to Drew, who looked just as awed as Nick felt. “Leave, cousin. You’ve done your duty, so scamper back to your wife and Grandfather. Tell him…message delivered.”
Drew rose and bowed to the woman who inclined her head as Drew took his leave. Nick swept a hand towards the now empty seat. “Do you care to join me here or shall we go somewhere more intimate?”
The woman eyed the seat while nibbling on her lip. Poor bird. Did she have no idea how desirable she was? Was this her first time doing this sort of thing? A strange urge to protect her filled him and sent icy tendrils of fear straight to his heart. He had no right to be able to protect any woman.
A soft sigh escaped her as she sat. “Might I speak frankly?”
“How novel.” Damn, he hated how jaded he was. Her blue gaze found his, disconcerting and refreshing in its openness. A little of his usual guardedness fled him. “Sorry. I’m not used to women who prefer to be direct.”
She nodded, her black hair falling to obscure her face. In one fluid motion, she tucked the thick strands behind her ear. “I understand. But I find I have no choice but to be blunt. Time and my situation demand it.”
Nick frowned. “You’re new at this, aren’t you?”
“New at what? Approaching a man and asking him if I can sit and proposition him?” Her eyebrows rose in twin arches of amusement. “Certainly.”
Laughter tugged at his lips. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d truly enjoyed conversing with a female. “I meant you’re new at the whole trade.”
The slight frown between her brows became a deep crease. “What trade?” Bafflement filled her voice.
Was this some sort of game? He’d willingly play any game she wanted if it put her at ease. “The trade of being a paramour.” He wasn’t expecting a ripple of surprised laughter as her response. Uncertain, he shifted in his seat. “Am I wrong?”
“Quite.” Her words dripped with mirth.
“What, then?” He felt a fool, a situation he detested.
She hesitated before speaking. “I sought you out Lord—”
A momentary look of discomfort crossed her face “Yes, I already knew your name. You need a wife, and I’m in the most unfortunate, definitely unwanted position of needing a husband. A titled one to be exact. Immediately.”
Despite years of avoiding this exact sort of situation, her unusual choice of words and the obvious displeasure she found in uttering them kept Nick planted in his seat. He studied her for one second, weighing his options—leave now or listen to what she had to say.
Hearing her out wouldn’t bind him to anything. A gentleman would stay. If he was anything with the ladies, he was always a consummate gentleman. And utterly honest. “I’m listening, but I must warn you, I’ve no wish to marry.”
She smiled and the beauty of it caused his breath to hitch. “Neither do I, Lord Edgeworth, which is why I think we might be perfect for each other.”
He wanted to ravish her, not marry her. Watching her speak, her luscious lips move, made his blood boil. He stared at her, unblinking. “I’ll never marry. Make no mistake.”
“Careful, my dear.” He allowed his gaze to travel slowly down her body, then back to her face. “You tempt me to try and corrupt you.”
Her innocent flush made his heart flip. She inhaled then spoke. “If you marry me you may corrupt me all the ways you can imagine.”
He didn’t like that his mind actually leaped to the possibility of all the ways he’d bed her if she was his wife, nor did he care for the fact that he was still sitting there, but he didn’t move. She’d offered a challenge of sorts and he’d never been one to walk away from a challenge.