Paddington, England, fourteen miles from London, March 1800:
"I am betrothed.”
Alex Hollister nearly swallowed her tongue. She gazed up the stairs and tried to make sense of the conversation going on above her, but she could only make out half the words. It was hard to hear around the heart pounding in her ears.
She didn’t want to believe she had heard him correctly. But there her brother was, clapping Marc on his wide back in congratulations, making denial impossible.
She stared at the tear-clouded shape of Jeremy’s lifelong friend, Lord Marcus Reyes Clifton, the next Duke of Paddington. He was taller than her brother by several inches, andhe was also the most handsome man she had ever seen.
His wide set shoulders and blond, wind-blown curls gave him a dangerous look that had always sent shivers down her spine.
She had spent so much time with him while growing up that she no longer needed to see his face to picture his dark green eyes and wicked grin. In fact, all she had to do anymore was close her eyes.
Their families had lived beside each other since long before their births were even a thought. Generations upon generations had passed down the beloved friendships. For Alex, growing up together had strengthened the relationship until it was now an extended family. She found she could not bear the thought of another woman intruding into their lives.
Marc’s sisters had argued for years that Alex felt more for Marc than mere friendship, but she had always denied it, honestly believing they were wrong. Now she realized it was she who had been wrong. Now that it was too late.
She blinked back tears and was forced to admit, to herself if no one else, that it had always been too late for her and Marc.
Marc had never wanted her in that way, and she had deluded herself into thinking she didn’t care. She knew without a doubt she was too stubborn and too outspoken for a man like Marc—a man whose biggest concern was what society expected. A tear broke free and trickled its way down her cheek, but she could not draw forth enough energy to lift her hand and wipe it away.
“She and her family will arrive soon to meet everyone properly and spend the night.”
As Marc’s soft words settled upon her, Alex could not stop a sob from escaping. She saw both men’s heads turn toward her, but she could not get her eyes to focus throughthe stinging tears.
Marc took a step toward her, his eyes filled with pity. “Hell, baby I was going to tell you.”
Her mouth opened, but the air seemed sucked from her lungs. How could he? Baby? Baby—how could he still call her that? He had called her that forever, but she wasn’t a baby, not anymore.
She struggled for the strength to tell him she was a woman, to tell him she loved him and that he couldn’t marry someone else. To tell him all the things she had denied all this time. She struggled to get the words to come, but all that came were tears and frustration. She turned and fled.
Blurry furniture sprang up in front of her and seemed to grasp at her skirts as she swerved past them. In her rush to be free, she slammed her fingers into the polished oak entrance door eliciting a grunt of shock.
She ignored the splintering pain, threw open the door, and ran. The safety and comfort of the thick woods that surrounded the property were her goal. The thick trunks and branches were her salvation, holding peace and freedom, just as they had ever since she was old enough to walk alone. The sweet, comforting aromas wafting from the multitude of flowers growing throughout the trees told her she was close.
Daring a glance over her shoulder, she saw the blurred images of the two men chasing her. Marc was a few steps ahead of her brother, and they were gaining on her. She ignored the deep ache in her side and fought for more speed. She had to reach the trees before they caught her.
Marc watched with a growing knot in his stomach as Alex drew closer to the tree line. He pushed himself harder, sweat starting to bead on his forehead. He knew that if they didn’t catch her before she made the tree line, she would be lost to them. Jeremy’s labored breathing came in deep, harsh gasps competing with his own as they tore across the sprawling lawns.
He hated that she had found out about the betrothal this way. He berated himself for not speaking with her sooner. He had meant to, but their relationship as of late had been strained. He had not known how to approach her. Now all he could think of was the pain in her pale blue eyes.
He cursed as she disappeared into the shadows. His only chance now was if her grief and tears slowed her. He cursed again, knowing the chances of that were slim. A few moments later, both men plunged into the chilled darkness of the woods.
Marc glanced at Jeremy and gave a quick nod. Jeremy returned the nod and disappeared down the well-worn path. This was not the first time they had chased the little imp into these woods. There was no need to waste time with speech. Both knew what needed to be done.
As Jeremy’s booted footsteps faded down the path, Marc turned to his task. He knew their chances of finding her now were slim, but he could not give up. With a bitter grunt, he plunged deeper into the trees.
Worry gnawed at him as he combed the underbrush. “Damn,” he whispered under his breath. Barbed wisps of self-deprecating guilt dug into his skin and pricked his conscious. Her tear-streaked face teased him from the shadowy realm of twisted branches and dancing leaves. “Hell and Damnation.” His quiet curse echoed back to him in bitter mockery.
He hated to hurt Alex. She was like a sister to him, always had been. She had been born in the same room, the same day, and just hours before his little sister Ashlee. The girls were born and raised like twins, with two mothers, two fathers, and two sets of families to keep them safe. As a surprise pregnancy for both women, the families had doted on the girls, spoiling them.
Alex had never taken to the pampering the way that Ashlee had. No, Alex always wanted to be off on her own. He grunted, realizing that nothing had changed in all the years that had passed. Alex was still independent and bull headed.
Branches snagged his clothing and slapped against his face as he pressed deeper into the trees. A soft rustling to his left brought him to a sudden stop. He cocked his head and listened, uncertain if he had imagined the soft noise.
He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. He held it and concentrated. The wind danced across the leaves. They sighed and rustled in the cool breeze. Birds chirped accusingly at him as they flitted from branch to branch. He could even hear small animals scurrying in the dead leaves that littered the forest floor, but what he could not hear was the noise that had brought him up short.
The air in his lungs turned to fire and heat began to spread up his throat as the breath fought for release. He ignored the feeling, struggling for a few more seconds, just enough time to hear—upon a soft breeze came the unmistakable sounds of tears—soft, delicate sounds that knocked the breath from him.
He found her, hugging her knees, rocking back and forth, and lost to the world. He touched her trembling shoulder. “Baby, come, let me help you.”
She jerked away from his touch.
Guilt swallowed him. “Baby, please.”
She stiffened but made no answer. Unsure of what to do next he touched her arm.
She leapt to her feet. “Do not touch me,” she hissed.
He opened his mouth, but before he could get a word out, she flung herself at him. Her fists pummeled the hard planes of his stomach and chest.
He grasped forher hands and missed. She was not hurting him, at least not physically. It was deep in his chest that he felt the blows. His heart ached at every swing and every tear.
A deep sob escaped her. “How could you do this to me? I—I—” The tears were coming harder, the blows weakening.
He finally caught hold of her wrists and forced them behind her. Her back arched and her breasts pressed against him. She slumped, her head falling against his thudding heart, her tears slowing to ragged hiccups. Thinking she was calming, he began to relax his grip. “Baby, listen—”
She exploded into a hell cat. He was caught off guard by her aggressive outburst. She twisted to get her hands free. Her breasts rubbed hard against his chest. The soft cotton of her flowery day-dress snagged on the buttons of his tailcoat, and the bodice slid down her shoulders to reveal pale, delicate skin. She jerked and twisted, tugged and kicked. The dress lost more ground. He tried to keep his mind on the hellcat within the circle of his arms. He tried, unsuccessfully, to ignore the ever-growing expanse of smooth tempting skin.
“Stop fighting.” His voice came out in a strangled gasp. “You are going—”
One soft rose-pink nipple escaped, showing through her almost translucent chemise. Marc’s breath ceased, his heart lurched to a shaky stop and then exploded through the gates like a racehorse hell bent on coming in first.
He struggled to regain control of not only her, but of himself. He tried, but could not pull his eyes from her exposed breasts. The rounded tops, covered in silky batiste, beckoned his hands and his mouth. He fought the urge to sample them and cursed himself. What the hell was he thinking?
When had she developed so well, and where had he been when it had happened? He drew her tighter against his chest in a desperate attempt to hide her tempting flesh. Her small, yet beautifully formed breasts seemed to scorch through his clothing. When had she stopped being a girl and become a woman?
He was surprised when her struggles stopped. Even more so by the feel of her soft trembling lips under his own, his tongue pushing against them, demanding entry.
He couldn’t remember getting there. He had, though, because there he stood, bent before her, the smells of lilacs and roses invading his senses, kissing her with a passion and desperation he had never felt before.
Her response was immediate and warm. She twisted her hands and slipped them from his distracted grasp. Reality forced its way through the fogs of passion. He reluctantly slowed his kisses. Their lips parted as he fought through the fogs of passion that had addled his mind.
Alex slipped her arms around his neck, drawing him back. Her hands timidly caressed his neck, her warm uncertain fingers pulled him even closer. He forced the kiss deeper.
He slid one hand down her thin waist and found the gentle swell of her bottom. He lifted her, settling her against his arousal. His kisses became forceful and fevered. His erection pressed hard against his breeches insisting on release. Marc tried to ignore it, tried for some semblance of control, but as Alex’s tongue, hesitant and tentative, grazed his, the fogs of passion engulfed him. He gave in to the desire of her inviting flesh. His free hand searched out her breast, the soft chemise cool against his fingers, the hardened nipple like a stone beneath his palm.
He pulled her closer and reveled in the lithe way she moved against him. He broke the kiss and smiled as she strained to regain his lips. He trailed kissed down her chin, across her jaw and gently bit at her ear. She dropped her head back and let out a low groan that reverberated through every fiber of his already painful lust. He kissed and nipped at her neck until her breathing was labored and she clung to him. He dropped his head and was only a breath away from the tops of her beautiful breasts when Jeremy’s deep call echoed through the trees.
Marc let out a curse, pulled back, and stared down at her upturned face. “Baby?”
Eyes so blue they were almost clear were darkened with passion. “Huh?”
Her brow furrowed and, as the soft smile slipped from her kiss-swollen lips and clarity brightened her eyes, he knew her brother’s voice had soaked into her drugged thoughts.
She gave a shaky laugh and joy lit her face. “I think we had best say you never found me.” With that, she was gone, and he turned on shaky legs to face his friend, his heart heavy with remorse.
“There you are. Did you not find her?” Jeremy’s face was tight with concern for his stubborn sibling, but it was obvious that he had not heard what had almost happened.
Marc took a deep breath, but where relief should have been, there was a cold spasm of guilt. “No, I thought I heard her, but if I did, she was gone before I got to her.” He could not meet Jeremy’s eyes. The lie stung his lips, but Alex was right. They could not admit he had been alone with her in the woods.
It would be devastating to both their reputations, both already in a fragile state.
Alex, the society darling that she was, had too many disappearances the previous season and rumors were starting to swirl. Her reputation was already tottering dangerously on the precipice and would not take much to push it from rumor to downright scandal.
Marc’s reputation was on the cusp of being perfect. His reputation meant everything to him, to his life and his plans. He would not let anything jeopardize all that he had worked so hard to accomplish.
He just wished she had not looked so happy—so hopeful as she had run from him. What if she thought he meant to break the betrothal? He did not want to hurt her again, and he hadn’t meant to lead her on. He had lost control, something he rarely did. He could not fathom how he had messed up so badly, not this close to having his life together.
“Well, perhaps she is already back at the house,” Jeremy said.
Marc grunted. “Hopefully. For, if not, we will not find her now.”
Jeremy peered into the trees that surrounded them. He shook his head, looking around before speaking. “Do you plan to announce your betrothal at the party tomorrow?”
“No, it is the girls’ night. Besides she wants one more season as a single woman. We will announce it at the end of this season and marry at the beginning of nex—”
There was a sharp gasp from above, and both heads jerked up at the muttered word that sounded suspiciously like, “Bastard.” The branches shook in violent objection, chastising the intruders.
“Lord, she was right above us.” Jeremy stared up at the leaves drifting lazily toward them, but all was now quiet. Even the birds were silent as if in deference to her pain. “Bloody hell, we just made it worse.”
Marc held his tongue. At least if she had gone back thinking he was not going to marry she would be safe at home. Now he wondered how long she would hide out here. If the past was any indication, it could be many hours, but she was always home by dark. Though, he thought, with one more look into the dense branches above him, this is no ordinary situation.
Alex maneuvered the thick tree tops, moving in near silence from branch to branch putting as much room between her and Marc as possible. The forest had grown together throughout the years, top branches and limbs had long since intertwined to make a thick canopy. It was usually an easy task to move from tree to tree and, even if in spots she had to make a short leap, it had never been a problem. Her tears were slowing her, but anger kept them at bay, and she managed not to slip and crash to the ground.
Alex released a breath of relief when her favorite spot came into view. With trembling muscles, she slid onto the well-worn branch and lay back in the elbow of a limb. It cradled her in a familiar embrace.
Closing her eyes, she drew comfort from the cool, time-worn branch. She shuddered at what had almost happened. Marc was an honorable man, and if he had sullied her, she had no doubt that he would have married her. While she was glad nothing had happened, nothing that would have left Marc stuck in a marriage he did not want, she was also stung by regret.
A tear slid down her cheek. She opened her eyes and looked through the veil of leaves. From her secluded spot, she could watch, unseen, the front doors, as well as the servant entrance, allowing her to keep an eye on everyone who came and went from the manor. It was one of the reasons this was her favorite spot.
She took up a sailor’s spy glass, given to her several birthdays ago by a close friend, and peered through it.
Marc and Jeremy trudged across the lawn, every so often looking back over their shoulders as they made their way to the house.
Sunlight shone through a break in the canopy. It danced through her hair and caressed her sweat dampened skin. She tilted her face, closed her eyes, and basked in its warmth. A soft, cool breeze stroked her skin. The collision of warmth and chill sent a shiver tingling down her body leaving gooseflesh in its wake.
Confusion invaded her peace, pricking at her like the thorns of a berry bush. She sighed and tried to understand why Marc had kissed her. He had, for the most part, ignored her since last season, since that dreadful night with Danton.
Although, she remembered, for a moment at least, I had thought he was going to kiss me that night. She scowled at his retreating back and wondered again how she had misunderstood that night so much.
She could still see the anger that had clouded his face and regretted the deep rift that had developed between them.
She took a deep breath and could almost smell the sweet roses as she pictured Danton dragging her from the dance floor and into the darkness of the garden. She wrinkled her nose at the memory of Danton’s sour breath overpowering the sweet call of the flowers when he had dropped his liquor-tinged lips toward her. She shivered, thinking of the way his cold lips had slithered across her cheek like wriggling worms.
She had felt a moment of fear, and then Marc was there, his fist connecting with Danton. Dark blood had trickled from Danton’s split lip, but he was on the ground for less than a heartbeat before he jumped back to his feet and disappeared into the darkness with a snarled, “You both will regret this.”
Alex had felt a wild exhilaration at being rescued by Marc, could still almost taste the excitement she had felt at the prospect of being alone with him in the forbidden darkness of the garden.
Then it had all gone wrong, and she still could not figure out why. She had turned to thank him, and his anger froze her heart.
What kind of a stupid child was she, did she not have any brains floating around in her head, did she want to be thought of as a loose girl, did she want to shame her parents, did she not know this was dangerous…
On and on he had accosted her with questions until she could take no more.
She shook her head in confusion as Marc and Jeremy closed in on the house. One minute, Marc had been yelling at her and the next she was in his arms, a strange heat cocooning her in a dizzying warmth that made thoughts difficult. He had stared at her lips in a strange way that had sent chills down her spine. Somewhere in her imagination,she had pictured him leaning down and kissing her, but his dark curses had quickly jerked her from that delusion. He released her. She had stumbled, her body drawn forward, as he pulled back. Then, without a word, he had walked away, disappearing into the darkness and leaving her feeling empty and confused.
The same way she felt now.
Since that day he had been distant and cold. A vast difference from the way he had been while she was growing up. She had tagged along after Jeremy and Marc all her life, and her heart cried out for the loss of their easy going friendship. She dragged Ashlee along as often as she could, but Ashlee had better things to do, like the piano forte or needlepoint, things Alex found mundane and boring. So more often than not it was just the three of them. They had laughed and joked with her, treating her like she was a friend and not just a young and annoying child.
Alex scrubbed her eyes, now tender and raw. How had things gotten so out of control between the two of them? Tears flowed for both the loss of that wondrous past and for the uncertainty of the future to come.
She slumped against the tree limb and tried to gain at least a semblance of control. Alex brought the glass to her eye once more gazing toward the manor. She knew she would have to face him, but as the carriage of “that woman” pulled up, Alex found she could not.
Her first thought was of going on to the Cliftons’s, but that would be the first place they would look. It always was. The stables, she thought, a crooked smile stealing across her lips. It would be uncomfortable, but it was a much better option than sleeping the night away in the tree.
Her parents would be beside themselves and, for that, she was sorry, but she could not face him. Not and keep her sanity. She had never stayed out the entire night, but she couldn’t bear to face his new betrothed alone. She would wait until morning when Amber and Ashlee would arrive.
She could return then when she had her friends beside her for support. Then maybe she could face Marc and his bride-to-be.
The dark maroon carriage drew to a stop in front of the manor. A footman rushed to open the door, followed at a dignified pace by Marc, Jeremy, and both sets of parents.
Through the wavering view of long glass, Alex watched a short fat man step from the fancy carriage, its thick burgundy-and-gold interior offensive in its gaudiness even from her vantage point. The man, easily recognizable to her, was slovenly beneath his fashionable attire. His thick sausage fingers, double chin, and rounded stomach made him look years older than his actual fifty-six years.
His dark blond hair of youth had lightened till it was almost white, graying around the temples, and his blue eyes were nearly lost in wrinkles. Lord Samuel Rutmeyer, the Duke of Myerdome, was an arrogant bastard if Alex had ever met one.
She had first met him, his wife, and his eldest daughter last season. She had not liked any of them one bit. Samuel was overbearing and loud and responsible for the scandal that had touched the Clifton family so long ago. The scandal that had nearly ruined them.
Next, came the female version of Rutmeyer, his wife, Lady Beatrice. She may have been attractive in her own way twenty years ago, but the life of luxury that many of the ton cling to is not kind to the body or the mind. Her ample bosom swung low over her massive stomach as gravity took its toll on the heavy mounds. Her pale blonde hair, elegantly coiled and piled tall upon her head, was her best feature—if one could ignore the bitter woman that was beneath it. Scowls and frowns had wrinkled her face prematurely, and she seemed to have frozen in an unhappy countenance.
Well, if they were the parents, then she knew who Marc was waiting to greet. Alex scowled. The next two passengers swept from the carriage like queens who could not be bothered by the peasants they were about to greet. The two girls, Caroline and Krystal Rutmeyer, who Alex only knew through reputation, held their heads high, noses in the air. The twins were both petite blondes of fourteen and already had a snobbish cast to their lovely features.
They looked, as Alex would guess, their mother had looked in her prime. Small boned and delicate, their big blue eyes and long waves of golden hair would soon turn many a man’s head and purse. Long thin necks pivoted as they took in the scenery, looks of disgust crossing each face. Their gowns, held high away from the dirt, were of exquisite silks and imported laces. Each was a pale peach which made their already pale complexions almost white, as was the fashion. Much in contrast to the dark sun-kissed skin of Alex, who could not imagine a life spent anywhere but outdoors.
Marc stepped forward after a polite and acceptable bow, to greet the next to emerge from the plush velvet interior. The four matched steeds, white as new snow and just as fickle, threw their heads in impatience, pawing at the ground, awaiting the departure of their last passenger.
The horses behind, pulling the wagon of servants and the ones behind it piled high with luggage answered with neighs of restlessness.
Alex knew these magnificent-looking creatures were never allowed to gallop and perform to the best of their quality. No, always on a short rein, they were much like her father and mother wanted her.
A dainty hand emerged from the carriage. Marc reached for it with a gentlemanly bow. The woman who stepped forward was a mirror image of the younger girls, except where their manners and posture spoke of arrogance and pride, hers pushed it further.
She looked in distaste at the dusty courtyard, as if she considered how the hard-packed drive would soil her dainty slippers. She looked down her nose, even at those societythought her equals. Alex knew for a fact that Janice believed she had no equals.
Marc stood with his hand held patiently out to her while she paused, as if to consider remaining in the carriage. Finally, she lay her gloved hand in his and allowed him to assist her. Alex should have expected no less.
Marcus Reyes Clifton was total society. What he did was governed by the rules and strictures set forth. He had spoken many times of his hopes for the future. Hopes that his father’s shipping business would flourish under his hands, and so far it had.
Alex thought back to the joy Marc had barely been able to conceal on the day, six years ago, when his father had allowed him to reopen the company. He had slowly brought it back to life and forced people to see beyond their mistrust. She was still frustrated by his refusal to physically see to the ships or any of the cargo, but he was adamant. He had people for that. His solicitor, for one, and the second, well…
She grinned, despite herself. He was totally unaware of the second.
The grin slipped away as she thought of the upcoming marriage. Whether she was to be his bride or not, she still wished him to be happy. He had worked too hard to be otherwise, and it pained her frayed heart to think he was not marrying for love, but for society.
Alex still had to fight anger every time she thought of their scandal and the Rutmeyers’s part in it. Ten years ago Lord Samuel Rutmeyer, in a fit of rage, had accused the Duke of Paddington of being a French spy. It was said he used his shipping contacts to pass information onto the enemy. There was nothing that could be proved, and no charges were ever brought, but it had damaged the business.
The malicious rumor had spread through the ton like wildfire, inflamed further by Marc’s father, Maxwell, and his unfashionable activities. Maxwell Clifton had always been the one to oversee his interests, never trusting another to do as good a job as he would himself. That menial labor in itself was enough to rouse the good members of the ton to suspicion. No self-respecting member of society would “work.” Alex snorted as anger tickled at her.
With the added accusations, the duke and his family had avoided London for many years, even shutting down the company. It had not helped their standing, only added fuel to the fire. With their absence, tongues wagged about the cause of it. Some saying it had to be true or they never hide in “The Country.” The last two words were always said with disgust. While country homes were becoming fashionable, one would never stay in one during the season.
Yet, over the last five years, they had moved back into society and were just beginning to out-live the rumors that still floated around. This marriage between the two feuding families would make great strides in regaining all the deserved status.
Movement from the house drew her attention and, as Alex watched the group disappear into the house, she wondered who had convinced the Rutmeyer family to stoop to this marriage. Was it because Janice Rutmeyer was infatuated with Marc and had insisted, or was it something else? Knowing she was acting out of jealousy did not dissuade Alex. She needed to know the reasons for the upcoming nuptials. It had to be more than feelings, or Lady Janice would not want to wait for so long. Even if it was considered acceptable, it was not common practice.
Asking directly of anyone involved would bring no answers. They would think her imprudent to even ask. They would not stoop to that kind of gossip, especially with her. No, they tried to keep anything unpleasant from her.
It was as if they expected her to remain in a bubble, never allowed to know the injustices of the cold world. She, herself, thought the opposite. Everyone should know the troubles of others. It made one more compassionate, more human.
No, they would not tell her what she wanted to know, but she knew who would, and she would be seeing him the day after tomorrow.
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