(C) Grace Callaway. All rights reserved.
Almost there. Keep moving. Don’t let them catch you.
Heart pounding, nine-year-old Anthony Hale trod through the streets of Mayfair, keeping his head down and gaze vigilant beneath his tattered cap. He didn’t dare run for fear of rousing suspicion. In this playground of the rich and powerful, he stuck out like a runty black sheep among plump, fluffy lambs, his soot-stained clothes betraying his profession as a climbing boy. The last thing he needed was for one of the blue-bloods taking their morning constitutionals to summon a constable. He tried to appear casual, as if he were on his way to clean another chimney…when in fact he was running for his life.
I own you, you li’l bugger. Roger Wiley’s menacing face flashed before his eyes. If I catch you runnin’ away again, you’ll wish you was dead.
The scars on Anthony’s back drew taut at the memory of his last flogging by the master sweep. He’d been feverish for days afterward, his blood soaking into the flour sacks that served as mattresses in the windowless cellar where all the climbing boys slept. It had been his second attempt to escape, and Wiley had made an example of him. Now none of the other children dared to step out of line. They were resigned to their fates—unlike Anthony.
He had a different path to follow. A promise to keep…and a destiny to fulfill.
He heard again his mother’s desperate last words. I won’t make it off this ship, my dear boy, but promise me you’ll find Anthony De Villier. He’s your father…your last hope. You’re so handsome and clever, I know he’ll take you in. If he doesn’t believe you, give him this. She’d pulled a piece of knotted leather from beneath her bodice, upon which dangled a magnificent bloodstone ring. The thick shank was made of gold, the shoulders carved in a scroll design. The ring’s black-and-red-flecked stone was carved with the ornate initials, “A. D.”
Keep it safe until you see De Villier. Until then, tell no one, my son…trust no one…
Anthony had been stupid; he hadn’t heeded his mama’s words. He’d thought he could trust the Wileys, fellow passengers on the ship who’d pretended to be Good Samaritans. When his mother died the day before reaching London, he’d sobbed in Drusilla Wiley’s arms. She and her husband Roger, a master sweep, had taken him to their home in St. Giles.
At Drusilla’s gentle persuasion, Anthony had confessed his purpose for coming to London.
Promising to help him find his father, Drusilla had asked to see the ring, and he’d given it to her. She and Roger had promptly locked him in the cellar—where Anthony had found himself face-to-face with a score of dirty, hungry, terrified boys…
For three years, he’d lived the nightmare of being one of the sweep’s “apprentices.” He’d cleaned stinking, suffocating stacks from dawn until dusk; by night, he’d toiled in the sweep’s other trade, committing burglaries and petty theft. He’d proven himself to be the fastest and cleverest of his peers, bringing in the most loot and artfully dodging the Peelers. He supposed this was the only reason Wiley had let him live after his two attempted flits.
As valuable as Anthony was, he knew that if Wiley caught him this third time, he would not survive. This was his last chance. His last hope…and he’d finally arrived.
He stared up at the imposing mansion built of cool grey stone. Rows of windows with rounded tops gleamed in the morning sunlight. Grand columns flanked the entryway, the steps leading up to the door so clean that you could eat off them.
“Crikey,” Anthony murmured. His father lived in a bleeding palace.
Casting a furtive glance around, he took out the handkerchief he’d nabbed from an unsuspecting passerby. Spitting in the fine linen, he used it to rub his face, removing as much soot as he could. Smoothing his unruly black hair beneath his cap, he climbed the steps and stood on tiptoe to reach the heavy brass knocker shaped like a lion’s head. Three raps, and the door opened to reveal a stern-faced butler.
“Deliveries around back,” the man barked.
As the door began to close, Anthony jammed one worn boot into the door’s path.
“What in God’s name—” the butler thundered.
“Please, sir, I need to see Mr. De Villier,” Anthony said desperately. “It’s a matter o’ great import—”
“Who are you to utter the master’s name? Move, you dirty cur, or I shall summon a constable!”
Calculating his options, Adam made his face contrite. “You win, guv, but you’ve got my foot trapped in this ’ere door.”
With a huff, the butler eased the pressure on the door—and Anthony charged into the wooden barrier. The door slammed into the butler, who landed on his arse with a startled curse, and Anthony dashed into the house.
His holey soles slid against the gleaming marble floor, but he kept his balance, racing through the antechamber with its dripping chandelier, past the wide staircase that wound up toward the upper floors. He dodged a swearing footman, almost collided into a maid who screeched, her cleaning bucket crashing to the ground.
This time of day, a rich cove would likely be in his private sanctuary. Anthony’s experience cleaning the chimneys of fine homes helped him to guess the present layout. He sprinted down a painting-lined hallway, passing the billiards room, music room, library, finally arriving at a closed door.
The study…voices coming from inside.
He reached for the door handle. His fingertips touched the smooth metal knob—and the next instant he was yanked back by the collar. He struggled, kicking out, his curses muffled by his captor’s hand.
“Got the li’l bugger,” the footman said. “What do you want me to do with him, Mr. Laraby?”
Appearing behind the footman, the butler said with a scowl, “The guttersnipe broke into a gentleman’s home; he’s undoubtedly a burglar in the making. It’s off to Newgate for him. Lock him in a cupboard while I summon a constable.”
The footman began to drag Anthony away from the study. From his only chance for survival.
He bared his teeth, sinking them into the footman’s palm. Swearing, the servant jerked his hand away, and Anthony shouted, “Anthony De Villier, I’m your son! My mama was Seraphina Hale—”
The footman backhanded him, making him see stars. “Shut your filthy gob, you rabid mongrel—”
“Bring him here,” an imperious voice commanded.
His vision clearing, Anthony saw that a tall, well-built gent now stood in the open doorway of the study. The man’s hair was the shade of bleached wheat, the clipped waves gleaming around his handsome, chiseled features. In contrast, his eyes were the black of coal and the only feature he and Anthony had in common.
Anthony’s heart thumped against his ribs. This toff…he’s my father?
“Beg pardon for the intrusion, Mr. De Villier,” the butler said hastily. “This brat barged in from the street, and I was about to contact the magistrates—”
“I’ll deal with it,” De Villier said.
“But, sir, he’s a street urchin. There’s no telling what he could do—”
De Villier looked at Anthony. “Did you come to do harm, boy?”
“Follow me.” De Villier turned and walked back into the study.
An instant later, the footman’s grip loosened, and Anthony jerked free. He followed De Villier’s broad back into the study, turning briefly to stick his tongue out at the glowering servants. Hah. Soon they would be answering to him…and the notion filled him with impossible hope.
Have I come home…at last?
“Close the door behind you.”
At De Villier’s command, Anthony shut the heavy door, gawking at the opulent space. He’d cleaned the chimneys of many a fine house but never had he seen a study as grand as this one. It even smelled rich, a mix of oiled leather, fine tobacco, and lemony beeswax polish. The shelves that reached from the floor to the soaring ceiling were filled with books—a luxury denied Anthony for the past three years, although his mama had taught him his letters. His boots sank into a carpet softer than anything he’d slept on.
Tall windows stood to the right of De Villier’s massive mahogany desk, the long velvet drapes pulled back to offer a view of the gardens. De Villier seated himself behind the desk. Anthony remained standing on the other side, belatedly remembering to doff his cap.
“You have something to say to me?” De Villier had his head idly propped against his left hand, his elbow resting on the arm of his studded wingchair. Once, Anthony had found a gentleman’s magazine in a rubbish heap, and this cove looked like one of the bleeding fashion plates.
Now’s your chance. Tell ’im who you are.
Twisting his cap, Anthony said in a rush, “My mama was Seraphina Hale. I was born in a village in Tuscany, lived all o’er Italy ’til I was six. Mama told me my father died afore I was born, so it was just the two o’ us. We got by all right. Mama was a fine singer, see, and ’er performances kept a roof o’er our ’eads and food in our bellies. But one day, she started to cough and couldn’t stop.” The memory flashed of his beautiful mother withering away in a dirty cot, blood-stained handkerchiefs strewn around her like crimson petals. With ease borne of practice, he tucked away the grief. “She told me it was time that I knew the truth: that her ’usband wasn’t dead but ’ad left ’er—and ’e didn’t know about me…’is son.”
“And you believe that I am this husband and father?” De Villier drawled.
Anthony gritted his teeth at the indifferent response. When Mama had told him about his father, he’d been angry: what sort of faithless whoreson would abandon his own wife? And why hadn’t his mama gone after the cad and demanded that he provide for her and their unborn child?
Pride and passion led to my downfall, Anthony, his mama had whispered. Don’t be like me.
“Mama said that you are,” he said in flat tones. “When she learned that she was dying, she sold all we ’ad to get passage to London. We arrived ’ere three years ago, but she died afore we made it to shore. Her last words to me were to find you.”
She died because you left ’er to fend for ’erself and your son, you blackguard. Because she worked ’erself to the bone and couldn’t afford a decent doctor. Because she spent everything she ’ad to get me ’ere to you.
“Three years ago?” De Villier lifted his brows, which were oddly dark like his eyes rather than fair like his hair. It gave him a hawkish, predatory look. “It took you that long to find me?”
Anthony reined in his rising fury. “On the ship, Mama and I were ‘befriended’ by a sweep named Wiley and ’is mort. After Mama died, the Wileys said they would ’elp me. They lied.” He gestured at his sooty clothes. “For the past three years, I’ve been one o’ their climbing boys.”
Among other things. He thought it best to keep his criminal activities under wraps.
De Villier’s gaze turned considering. “You have proof of your connection to this Seraphina Hale? To me?”
For the umpteenth time, Anthony cursed himself for being a gull and handing over the signet ring to the Wileys. Risking his life more than once, he’d snuck into the Wileys’s rooms in the flash house to look for his lost treasure. He’d never found it. No doubt the Wileys had pawned the ring years ago, disposing of the stolen goods…and Anthony’s future along with it.
If living in the stews had taught him anything, it was this: an eye for an eye. Anthony had an excellent memory, never forgot a wrong. He would get his justice…eventually. He wasn’t the same fool he’d been at six. Now he understood the importance of self-control, discipline, biding one’s time.
The Wileys betrayed me, stole my legacy, and one day they’ll pay for it.
But the time for retribution was later. For now, he had to convince De Villier that they were kin. Even if he despised the bastard, he would swallow his pride for the sake of survival. Like an alley cat, he didn’t give a damn whose hand fed him as long as he got food in his belly. Once he was strong and powerful, he would get his due.
“Mama gave me a ring, sir. Made o’ gold and set with a bloodstone in the center.” Encouraged by the flicker in those dark eyes, he forged on. “The bloodstone was carved with the initials ‘A. D.’ There was an inscription inside the band too.”
Was it his imagination, or did the blighter sit up straighter?
De Villier said slowly, “What did it say?”
“It wasn’t in English.” Anthony’s mama had shown him the Latin, told him the meaning. “Numquam obliviscar, it means—”
“Never forget,” De Villier said in a low voice.
Hope burgeoned inside Anthony; he gave a vigorous nod.
“You have this ring?”
“The Wileys stole it from me,” he admitted.
De Villier regarded him dispassionately. “Then you have no proof.”
A cold droplet trickled down his spine. “I ain’t got the ring, but I described it, didn’t I?” From Wiley, he’d learned that pleading was futile, the strategy of the weak. He kept his voice strong and steady. “You can’t deny you know what I’m speaking o’—”
Relief burst in him. “So…you believe me? That I’m your son?”
De Villier lifted his right hand, the one that had been below Anthony’s line of sight, onto the desk. Shock barricaded Anthony’s breath: he stared in disbelief at the heavy gold ring, the crimson-flecked black stone that bore those distinctive initials.
“I d-don’t understand,” he stammered. “’Ow do you ’ave the ring…?”
“Wiley,” De Villier said.
Wiley gave it to him? Before Anthony could make sense of it, a side door opened—and Roger Wiley entered the study. At the sight of the sweep’s cruel features, self-preservation overrode shock, and Anthony bolted toward the main door. He didn’t make it, the familiar beefy hand catching him by the scruff, lifting him clear off the ground.
He yelled for his life, punching and kicking out. Wiley’s fist slammed into his jaw. Metallic pain flooded his mouth, the blows coming again and again, pounding the fight out of him. Finally, he slumped to the ground, curling up against the onslaught, the truth more agonizing than bruises and shattered bones.
De Villier knew about me…this whole bleedin’ time…
“That is enough.” De Villier’s voice came from above him.
“Beg pardon, sir,” Wiley replied. “What do you want me to do wif the bugger?”
“Your job was to keep him away. That was the deal.”
“Brat’s slippery as a lamprey. From now on, I’ll keep ’im chained night and day—”
“No. I want a permanent solution.”
“Do you mean…?”
“I don’t want to see him again.”
De Villier’s command penetrated the red waves of agony. Anthony forced himself to sit up, to look at his sire.
“I ’ave your blood,” he gasped out. “You would murder you own son?”
De Villier’s eyes were as cold and dark as the Thames. “A powerful man isn’t blinded by sentiment.”
Anthony’s survival instincts wouldn’t let him die this way. He tried to get on his feet, pain forcing him back on his knees. Using his hands, he dragged his broken body away from the danger.
De Villier abandoned my mama, and she suffered, died because o’ ’im. ’E paid the Wileys to abuse and imprison me, work me like a slave. And now the bastard wants me dead…my own father—tears rolled down Anthony’s face, despite his vow not to show weakness—…e’s my enemy. I’ll never forget…
“Where do you think you’re going?” Wiley snarled.
Anthony crawled doggedly on. The vicious kick caught him in the ribs. He heard the snap of bones, the helpless cry of an animal claimed by the dark.
1830, Traverstoke, Country Estate of Curtis Billings
Miss Gabriella Billings dashed into the moonlit courtyard. Her slippers took her down one of the graveled paths, away from the laughter of the guests and strains of the orchestra floating from the ballroom. She sought the sanctuary of hedges that lined the quadrangle. White marble statues of Greek gods gleamed in the darkness, seeming to offer protection from the outside world.
Under the watchful eye of Diana, Gabby couldn’t keep her emotions in any longer. All through supper and the dancing afterward, she’d kept a brave face, never letting her smile slip even in the face of subtle—and not so subtle—snubs. Years of experience had taught her that her best defense in such situations was to keep her expression cheerful and feign ignorance. To simply pretend that she didn’t understand the underhanded insults. If she didn’t give others the satisfaction of seeing their barbs hit home, then sooner or later they would leave her alone.
The strategy, while effective, was not without its cost. It required all of her willpower to keep her manner bright as the slights pierced her skin, their poison trickling into her lifeblood. Now her strength deserted her, tears leaking down her cheeks.
Father spared no expense in throwing this house party. All for your sake. Yet you’ve managed to become the outcast…of your own dashed fête.
She looked up at the sky, and even the stars, in their bright glory, seemed to be mocking her.
What’s wrong with me? she thought in despair. Why can’t I fit in? Why must I be the object of incessant ridicule?
“Good evening, Miss Billings.”
Gabby started at the smooth, cultured baritone. She swiped the backs of her gloved hands across her cheeks and pinned a smile in place before turning around. Her heart stuttered when she saw who was standing a few feet away.
Adam Garrity was one of her father’s business associates and the most ruthlessly elegant man she’d ever met. His coal-black hair was immaculately slicked back, his somber tailoring fitting his lean, virile figure like a glove. She guessed that he was a dozen years older than her own age of two-and-twenty, but his austerely handsome features defied such banalities as age.
She’d met him for the first time that afternoon when he’d arrived unannounced to the house party. Such was Garrity’s power that her papa, one of the wealthiest and most influential bankers in London, instructed her to have the best suite readied for their unexpected guest’s use.
“Whatever Garrity wants, Garrity gets,” Father had told her in no uncertain terms. “You must ensure that his stay is nothing short of perfection, Gabriella.”
All her life, she’d wanted desperately to please her papa, and this occasion was no exception. He’d spent an exorbitant amount on the party, renovating the sprawling country estate and providing first-rate entertainment and refreshments for the guests. He’d even provided her with a luxurious new wardrobe and dazzling jewels to match. All because he wanted her to make an aristocratic catch.
And you’re failing miserably at it…the way you’ve failed at everything.
Realizing that she still hadn’t answered the esteemed guest, she pushed aside her woes.
“Good evening, Mr. Garrity,” she said. “Are you, um, looking for something?”
“I’ve found what I’m looking for.”
She blinked, not certain how to respond. If he was with any other female, his comment might be construed as flirtatious. But since he was with her, he was likely being literal.
“You wanted a breath of fresh air in the courtyard?” she asked.
His gaze remained steady on her face. During their introductions earlier, she’d been struck by the intensity of his presence. His exquisite manners were paired with a predatory stillness. He didn’t say much, didn’t need to: it was as if he was simply waiting for one to make the wrong move. If life were a staring contest, Adam Garrity would always emerge victorious, the very last to blink.
She’d seen other guests scurry away from him, unable to bear his compelling authority. She, herself, found him fascinating. She’d recently read Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, and he could have stepped out of the pages of her imagination. He was exactly how she pictured Shahriar, the mighty sultan whose betrayal by his adulteress wife led him to wed and execute a new bride every day…until the brave and beautiful Scheherazade captivated him with her stories, turning him from his dark path.
It wasn’t just Mr. Garrity’s inky hair and hard eyes, the cruel yet sensual curve of his mouth that reminded her of an ancient Persian king. It was his aura of power. That bone-deep male confidence bordering on arrogance that aroused a strange awareness in her…
“I wanted to know that you are well, Miss Billings,” he said. “I saw you leave the ballroom.”
That he’d noticed her absence was surprising enough. That he was concerned about her well-being and had made the effort to find her was downright shocking. Her pulse fluttered.
“You are ever so kind, sir,” she said breathlessly. “But I am quite well, as you see. The ballroom was just, um, a bit stifling.”
More accurately, it had been the smothering condescension of some of the guests that had made her flee. That and the fact that her dance card was nearly empty. Her potential suitor, the gruff and unapproachable Viscount Carlisle, had done his duty, partnering her in a quadrille, but his expression had betrayed his impatience with the task. Carlisle’s interest in her was motivated by his financial circumstances, but as her father had succinctly put it, “Beggars can’t be choosers, girl.”
Is it wrong that, for once in my life, I want a choice? she thought dejectedly.
Her dreams were simple: all she wanted was a husband to love. He didn’t have to be handsome or rich, just nice and understanding. A comfortable sort of man who wouldn’t mind her flaws and who would enjoy spending time with her, doing ordinary things. She wanted to make a home with him and bear his children. To have a place where she would feel safe and always belong.
“Perhaps you would care for a stroll, Miss Billings?”
Mr. Garrity’s invitation reclaimed her attention. Her jaw slackened; surely a man as important as he was wouldn’t think her worthy of his time? The realization struck her: he must be acting out of obligation because he was her father’s colleague.
“That’s ever so considerate of you to ask, sir,” she said earnestly. “But it’s unnecessary. I’m sure you have much more important matters to attend to.”
“None more important than what I’m attending to now.”
She tilted her head, not following. “What are you attending to?”
“You, Miss Billings,” he said simply.
“Oh.” The startled sound popped from her lips.
His gallantry flooded her with a foreign, pleasurable warmth. Her heart pounding, she hoped the moonlight hid her furious blush. She didn’t need red cheeks to go with her red hair.
Then her common sense chimed in. As tempting as it was to spend time in the company of this charismatic man who deemed her worthy of his attention, the current circumstances wouldn’t permit it. Social rejection at one’s own party was bad enough; she didn’t need to add ruination to the list of her night’s accomplishments.
“I’d like to stroll with you, sir, ever so much, but I have no chaperone—”
“I’ve made arrangements.” He raised his hand, snapped his fingers.
A pair of burly guards emerged from the shadows onto the graveled path, an auburn-haired matron between them. Gabby recognized Mrs. Sumner, one of the guests. Over supper, she’d been a bit intimidated by the widow’s bold and provocative manner. Although, Gabby thought ruefully, she could stand to learn a thing or two from Mrs. Sumner’s ease with the opposite sex.
Flirtation, like most social skills, wasn’t Gabby’s forte.
“Mrs. Sumner has volunteered her chaperonage,” Mr. Garrity said.
“I’m glad to be of service, Mr. Garrity,” Mrs. Sumner called out in simpering, deferential tones.
With a wave of his hand, Mr. Garrity sent the guards and widow retreating back to a discreet distance. Then he offered Gabby his arm. “You have my word that this will be a short, perfectly respectable interlude. Shall we?”
“You think of everything, don’t you?” Gabby asked, bemused.
“I want you to know that your reputation is safe with me.” The stars reflected in his eyes, which were darker than the sky and so deep that she had the sensation of losing herself in everlasting midnight. “That you, Miss Billings, will always be safe with me.”
Mesmerized, she felt her fingers lift of their own accord, landing on the plush sleeve of his jacket. He led the way along the path. Given her short stature, she often had to hurry to keep up with others, which added to her general aura of inelegance. Yet with Mr. Garrity steering her, she seemed to float along, perfectly in step.
“May I compliment you on your fine looks this eve, Miss Billings?”
Now Gabby was aware of her frumpiness. It wasn’t the fault of her white silk gown, which was au courant with its fitted bodice, billowing sleeves, and full, flounced skirts. The problem was her. Her figure always strained seams in the wrong places, causing a surfeit of rumpling and bunching. Even stays weren’t a solution. While tight lacing reduced her fleshiness in one place, it made her bulge unbecomingly in others. Voices from finishing school assailed her, reminding her of her many shortcomings:
“Look at Gabriella…she’s a walking sausage stuffed in a corset.”
“And her manner? I’ve never heard anyone chatter so much about so little.”
“My mama says nothing is more common than red hair and freckles.”
Gabby shut out the painful memories of rejection. She told herself that it was kind of Mr. Garrity to compliment her. To take notice of her at all.
“You’re ever so nice to say so,” she said, her voice trembling.
“First you say I’m kind. Now I’m nice?” He lifted his brows. “Have a care, Miss Billings, lest you do irreparable damage to my reputation.”
The humor glinting in his eyes was a balm to her ruffled nerves.
“Well, I think you’re both,” she said impulsively.
“What you think is what matters to me, my dear Miss Billings.”
The endearment and intensity of his regard made her heart thump against the cage of her ribs. She found it difficult to breathe. And not just because of her corset.
Don’t be a ninny. He’s obviously just taking pity on you. Doing the pretty because he’s a friend of Father’s.
“You, um, don’t care what others think?” she managed.
“I’m a busy man. The opinion of others is a distraction that I don’t have time for.”
How she admired and envied his confidence.
“I wish I could be like you,” she said. “I wish the opinions of others didn’t matter.”
“Is that why you were crying?”
His acuity took her off guard. She pulled back on instinct, yet his hand closed over hers, keeping her on his arm. Not with force—she could have pulled free—but his touch had an engrossing warmth, one that made her grow still. His heat seeped through her satin gloves, the sensation of being trapped by his long fingers setting off quivers in her belly.
“You need hide nothing from me, Miss Billings,” he said. “If we are to further our acquaintance, it would be best for us to be honest with one another.”
Stunned, she came to a halt. “You wish to further your acquaintance with me?”
His brows lifted. “Why does that surprise you?”
“Because you’re…” Handsome as a prince. And rich and powerful. Why would you want to get to know me? “You’re my father’s business associate,” she finished lamely.
He studied her. “Do you find me old, Miss Billings? Too old to be your friend?”
The idea was laughable. He radiated virile energy, the essence of a man in his prime.
“No,” she blurted. “Definitely not.”
His lips gave a faint twitch. He had a beautiful mouth, she thought. Thin, firm-looking lips with a wicked curve to the bottom one.
What would it be like to be kissed by that mouth?
The shockingly wanton thought burst into her head. She shoved it out just as quickly, told herself that it was idle curiosity. She’d never been kissed and feared that no one would ever want to kiss her.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said solemnly. “Now tell me what caused your tears.”
He was so strong and unflappable. The desire to unburden herself was irresistible.
“I’m a horrid hostess,” she admitted. “A complete failure.”
She appreciated his bluntness. That he didn’t try to placate or minimize her worries. As he continued navigating them along the garden path, it felt natural to tell him everything.
“I’m ill-at-ease at large gatherings. When I’m nervous, I tend to chatter. About the inanest topics.” She paused, then with a shrug confessed, “I’m supposed to make a good impression on Viscount Carlisle. He needs a wife with a dowry, you see, which is the one attraction I do have. Father would be ever so pleased to have a title in the family. But the problem is that I find Lord Carlisle rather, well, intimidating. And, as I’ve said, when I’m anxious I go on about the most nonsensical things.”
“I’m certain your conversation was as charming as you are.”
“At supper, I went on about bonnets and gloves for an entire hour,” she said grimly.
Instead of looking horrified—as Viscount Carlisle had during her lengthy soliloquy about frippery—Mr. Garrity slanted her an amused look. “What is it about Carlisle that you find intimidating?”
“He doesn’t talk back, for starters. Nor does he smile, at least not at me,” she explained. “Worst of all, he’s overly large.”
A strange sound escaped Mr. Garrity.
“Are you all right, sir?” She peered at him anxiously.
“You don’t like, er, large men?”
“I prefer my companion to be a more manageable height. Being vertically disadvantaged, I’d rather not get a crick in my neck every time we dance or stand together.” She gave him an admiring look. He was a shade under six feet, every inch of him fit and well-proportioned. “You, for example, are the perfect height. Not too tall, not short, just right.”
“I’m glad I meet with your approval,” he murmured.
Something in his tone made her skin tingle. She realized how brazen she was being, commenting on his personal attributes. What in heaven’s name was wrong with her?
“I meant no offense—”
“And I took none. Now about Carlisle,” he said smoothly. “Are you upset that he hasn’t come up to scratch?”
“Oh no,” she said honestly. “I’d be ever so relieved if he didn’t. We don’t suit at all.”
“Then why did you call yourself a failure?”
She swallowed, not knowing if she could share this latest humiliation aloud.
“You can trust me.”
Compelled by Mr. Garrity’s quiet command, she confided the awful events in a rush.
“At supper, one of the guests said that a lady…she must guard her secrets as closely as her jewels. And I asked, what if a lady doesn’t have any secrets? Because I’m ever so boring, you see, and not mysterious at all.”
“There’s nothing boring about you, Miss Billings. Your candor is both rare and charming.”
Her heart thumped giddily. “That’s ever so kind of you to say, sir.”
“I’m the soul of kindness, it seems. Go on.”
Entranced by his unwavering attention, she’d lost her train of thought. “Um…where was I?”
“You’d made the comment about a lady not having secrets.”
“Oh. Right.” She drew a breath, deciding that discretion was the best policy; she need not name names. “To my comment, one of the guests replied, ‘Then she has no choice but to rely on her jewels.’ Then he complimented me…on my necklace.”
The guest had been Lord Parnell, a young rake known for his rapier wit. His cut had been clear, slicing deep into the heart of her woes: because Gabby lacked any alluring charms or mystique, she had to rely on her money to attract a husband.
Gabby lowered her head in embarrassment. The necklace in question felt as heavy as an albatross around her throat. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know her own shortcomings; she didn’t need to have them pointed out in a public fashion. During the dancing after supper, Parnell and his cronies had watched her with smirks on their faces, sniggering to one another, and she’d known they were making fun of her.
“Who said this to you?”
The lethal edge in Mr. Garrity’s voice made her look up. To her surprise, his jaw was taut, and his eyes were smoldering, embers heating up the cold black.
“Who said this?” he repeated.
“It doesn’t matter—”
“I beg to differ. No one insults you without consequences.”
“I’m all right, truly.” His chivalry suffused her with wonder. “But thank you…for caring.”
He stopped. Curled a finger beneath her chin. His touch rendered her incapable of motion or speech; even her worries about propriety and her reputation faded. He was like the sun and she a planet drawn into his powerful orbit. For a wild moment, she lost herself in his magnetic heat.
“If anyone else is a nuisance, promise that you will come to me,” he said.
Her breath puffed from her lips. He stood so close. Close enough for his scent to tickle her nostrils, a virile mix of exotic spice and clean male. Heat bloomed inside her, her knees melting.
He increased the subtle pressure of his finger on her chin. His strength seemed to flow into her from that single point of contact. “Give me your word, my dear.”
No man had ever offered to be her champion. To defend and protect her.
Her voice hushed with wonder and amazement, she said, “I promise.”
Satisfaction flared in his eyes before his gaze hooded.
“Good.” He dropped his hand. “For the sake of your reputation, you’d best go back inside.”
She hadn’t even noticed that they were once again near the main building. Although she didn’t want the magical interlude to end, she knew he was right.
“Good night, Mr. Garrity,” she said with a tremulous smile. “I shan’t ever forget this evening.”
He bowed. “Adieu, Miss Billings.”
She floated back toward the house.
“If you insult Miss Billings again—if you even look askance at her—you will answer to me.” Adam kept the target of his displeasure pinned against the wall of the stables. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal,” Lord Parnell gasped.
“From here on in, you and your cronies will ensure that her dance card is full. Except for the waltzes; those are mine. Otherwise, you’ll do the pretty, and you’ll do it well.”
“Y-yes, sir. Anything you say, sir.”
The scent of urine wafted into Adam’s nostrils. With distaste, he saw the dark spot spreading over the front of Parnell’s trousers. The lily-livered bastard had no problem destroying a young woman’s confidence to further his own popularity, yet he hadn’t even tried to fight back against Adam. Like any bully, Parnell was a coward who only preyed upon the vulnerable.
Having dealt with this despicable sort all his life, Adam knew how to deal with them. There was only one thing a bully respected: a bigger bully.
Releasing the blackguard with a hard shove, Adam opened and closed his hands, feeling the burn of his well-used fists. These days, he didn’t dirty his hands much, but this was a matter of honor. His soon-to-be-bride’s honor.
Recalling Gabriella’s sweet departing smile, he felt a surge of satisfaction.
Everything is going according to plan. Soon she’ll be mine. And I’ll be one step closer to getting my vengeance.
Numquam obliviscar—never forget.
“Shall I finish up here, sir?”
This came from Kerrigan, one of Adam’s personal guards. A giant with a shaved head and an eye patch, Kerrigan had a special hatred of toffs who hurt young women. Adam felt the same way. And Gabriella, with her poignant sweetness, stirred his protective instincts in a way no woman had for a long, long time.
Adam straightened the lapels of his jacket. “Avoid the face. Leave no visible marks.”
Kerrigan grinned, cracking his knuckles.
The last thing Adam heard as he left the stables was Parnell’s terrified whimper.
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