The Bride Says No . . .
Blake Stephens, the oldest of the duke of Penevey’s four sons, albeit his only illegitimate one, seethed with fury.
His pride had made him a fool. A trapped one.
The moment Lady Tara had accepted his marriage offer, he’d known he’d made a mistake.
He didn’t want to be married. He liked being a bachelor. He wallowed in his freedom. He had his mates, a group of the finest sportsmen in London, he had more money than he could imagine spending, and he’d had what mattered to him most—his father’s respect, or so he had thought.
Penevey had wanted Blake to marry the Davidson chit. He’d advised Blake that it was time for him to be respectably settled and the marriage would be a good one for any children that might come of it.
Children had been the right argument for Blake. He planned to have them someday and he didn’t want them to suffer from the shame of his dubious parentage or the vicious teasing he had received in school. It had not been easy being Penevey’s bastard. Blake had earned the respect of his peers but he’d had to constantly prove himself. They had tested him hard. Meanwhile, his younger half-brother, Arthur, the duke’s legitimate heir, was accepted everywhere in spite of being a horse’s ass.
Too late did Blake learn that the reason that Penevey pushed him to marry Lady Tara Davidson was not for Blake’s well being, but to keep Arthur away from her. Arthur had tumbled head over heels in love with the lovely Tara, and, yes, Blake had received great satisfaction when Tara chose him over Arthur . . . but that was before he’d realized Penevey had paid the earl of Tay to accept Blake’s suit. Penevey had played upon Blake’s jealousy of his half-brother to remove the threat of Tara from his heir. He had not wanted Arthur associated with a Scottish nobody, no matter how beautiful.
But his bastard was a different story . . .
And then Tara had decamped.
If London knew she had jilted him, Blake would be a laughingstock. He did not like gossip, especially directed at him. He’d fought hard for everything he had, and on a whim, Lady Tara had been willing to humiliate him. He was already furious that Penevey knew she’d run and the duke had given him strict orders to make it right. Penevey did not want to take the risk that Arthur would be the one to chase after her. No, she was only good enough for his bastard.
Bitterness set heavy in Blake’s gut.
And it did not help that Tara Davidson had just left the room without so much as a backward glance toward him. She really did believe that a few pretty tears and a pretense of contriteness was all that was necessary to an apology.
She was going to make his life hell.
And he was stuck.
At least, her sister had enough sense to know he was angry. She eyed him warily.
He eyed her with interest.
Blake had not met the notorious Lady Aileen before. He’d heard about her. The Crim Con case to investigate her adultery had been the talk of London during a slow and lazy summer. Her husband Captain Geoffrey Hamilton had not held back in painting his wife as some lascivious Jezebel. Peter Pollard, her lover and one of Hamilton’s fellow officers, had not made any appearance to defend either himself or her. Since Hamilton’s father had held a Ministry position and Geoff was considered a war hero, the divorce had been speedily approved. It did not help her reputation that within six months of the divorce, both of the men had died in battle and been proclaimed war heroes.
Now, face-to-face with the woman who had launched a thousand wagging tongues, Blake could see what Hamilton and Pollard had admired. Before he’d been hard pressed to understand why such a profligate womanizer as Hamilton would begrudge his lady one lover, but here was a woman any man would jealously guard.
To the conventional, she wouldn’t be deemed half as pretty as Tara. Although her hair was thick and shining, it was brown with just a touch of gold but not striking enough to raise comment. Her mouth was too wide, too generous for beauty. Her eyes were not as blue as her celebrated sister’s and she would have been dismissed by the people who chronicle such things as too tall. Height didn’t bother Blake provided the curves were there. He was tall man and he liked a woman willing to look him in the eye.
Of course that didn’t have anything to do with one’s height as much as it did one’s intellect and Lady Aileen struck him as possessing a keen mind, a trait Blake valued. He also liked the energy that swirled around her.
Of course, she’d just energetically used her intelligence to argue for her sister to unceremoniously reject him. That was a strike against her.
Of course, she, too, had been left behind.
She stared at the empty doorway as if puzzled at how quickly the tables had turned on her. Her shoulders lowered, giving her the air of being graceful in defeat—until she swung her attention to him and the lines of her mouth tighten.
For a long second they took each other’s measure, and then she said with a tartness her lilting accent could not sweeten, “Well, are you happy? You will have a wife. It’s not right, you know. One shouldn’t be ‘forced’ to marry.”
“I knew your husband.”
His intent was to surprise her and he succeeded. Her manner changed. She reacted as if the air had been sucked out of the room.
“Relax,” he said. “If I’d been married to Geoff Hamilton, I would done anything I could to free myself of him.” He rose from the chair, his empty glass still in his hand. For a second he had to stretch his muscles. “That was a punishing coach ride. I don’t like being tucked into small spaces.”
“Especially with a man like my father.”
Blake shot her a glance. The earl of Tay was known for his rambling monologues and prodigious drinking. What most people didn’t know, and Blake now did, was that the earl had a whole array of disgusting personal habits from flatulence to picking at body parts. Blake never wanted to be that close to that man ever again.
“It was not a pleasant trip,” he commented.
“But you achieved what you wished. You have a bride.”
Yes, he did . . .
“How did you know my husband?” Lady Aileen asked, her manner defensive.
“I was in school with him. We did not like each other. He was a scoundrel, a liar, and a cheat.”
“He was.” The words hung in the air between them.
Usually, women were eager to babble their business. He’d thought them all magpies. But Lady Aileen was tense, her lips pressed in such a way that he knew she was determined to say no more. She expected him to think the worst of her. After having been the target of gossips for most of his life, Blake understood.
He changed the subject. “So you believe in love,” he said, walking over to the liquor cabinet to place his empty glass upon it.
“Of course,” she replied a touch too briskly. “Don’t you?”
“Of course,” he answered, echoing her breezy tone and letting her know he saw through her. “After all, I am here, aren’t I?”
“Very well . . . I don’t believe in love.” She raised her arms as if asking him what he wanted to do about it. “But my sister does and I’m certain you have little feeling for her.”
“Why would you say that?” Blake asked, curious to know her impression of him.
“It was very obvious,” she said. “You barely looked at her a moment ago and you don’t act like a wounded swain. When you didn’t rise when my sister and I entered the room, I thought it was poor manners born out of a sense of arrogance. And I’m not going to say you aren’t arrogant—but . . .” she said thoughtfully, “I don’t think you are afraid to let her jilt you.”
“Afraid? No, but my pride is all I have that is truly my own. I have no desire to be known as the man Tara Davidson refused to marry, not without a hand in my own destiny.”
“Oh, you will have a hand in your destiny, sir. You’ll have a miserable hand, one that you will make you rue the day you agreed to this marriage.”
He already did wish he wasn’t promised to marry, but no good would come from admitting it to the sister.
“I also know that Tara will make you a beautiful and dutiful wife. You will be the envy of your peers and your children will be precious replicas of the two of you-”
“You sound resentful–” he observed.
“While,” she continued, ignoring his statement but exerting the authority of her opinion, “the two of you will live separate lives. That is completely to be expected since it is so common. But it makes me sad to contemplate the possibility. While I am not acquainted with you, I do know there is more to my sister than meets the eye. She deserves better than a cold marriage.”
Her blunt assessment stung. “Says the woman who is divorced.”
Her chin lifted a notch. “Yes, I am divorced and at peace with it. Trust me, I am not comparing my marriage to yours.”
“That is comforting,” he murmured.
“Because if I did,” she went on, her smile growing steely, “I would have a pistol in my hand and not allow you a step close to Tara.”
“I shall consider that a warning,” he answered.
“It’s a promise. But if I were you, I would be afraid to give up my life to another. ‘Till death do we part’ can be a very long time.”
“Not if we have separate lives,” he reminded her.
She gave him an assessing look. “Is that what you really want? A life spent avoiding your wife, of pretending all is good?”
“So I take it that you plan marrying again?” he challenged, baiting her, wanting to know what she would do.
A sad smile crossed her face. “You said you knew my husband. Perhaps you did not know him as well as you thought or you wouldn’t have asked such a question.” She walked to the door. “We eat early in the country, Mr. Stephens. Dinner will be in two hours. I pray you make yourself comfortable. If you need anything, you have only to ask a servant.” On those words, she left the room.
And with her went that strong sense of presence, of vitality.
Aileen Davidson Hamilton was a force of nature. And perhaps one of the most interesting women he’d ever met. She didn’t hesitate to speak her mind. Nor was she coy or flirtatious in the way one would imagine a woman rumored to be promiscuous would behave. He found her directness and her loyalty refreshing.
He walked to the door. The hallway was already empty. She’d disappeared to somewhere in the house. He leaned against the doorframe, and wondered what he would do, what he could do, to honorably escape a marriage to Tara.
Because she was right—he would not be able to stand the married life she had described.
His mother had been the most manipulative woman he’d ever known. And his early years of being raised in her room at Madame Lavatt’s whorehouse had taught him that any woman could give a kiss as quickly as a slap. They were mercurial, difficult, grasping and greedy.
They were also a necessary evil for any sexually vigorous man, and Blake was that . . . although he was wise in his choice of partners. Discreet. He valued quality over quantity.
He also new himself well.
If Tara had not been the loveliest woman in London, if everyone had not wanted her, especially Arthur, he wouldn’t have courted her no matter how hard Penevey pressed. There had been a challenge in winning the woman they had all wanted. However, there had been times he’d paid a call on Tara where fifteen minutes seemed like fifteen hours. She bored him.
But he had a feeling he would find Lady Aileen anything but boring.
It was said that a wise man stayed away from clever omen. Blake had always wondered what the saying had meant. He’d known women who were witty, wise, humorous . . . but he’d never met one he’d consider “clever” in a dangerous sense.
He believed he’d just met one.