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Eastcote, August 1825
Virginia Waverly could hardly contain her excitement as the carriage hurtled toward Marsbury House. A ball! She was going to a ball at last. She would finally get to use those waltz steps her second cousin, Pierce Waverly, the Earl of Devonmont, had taught her.
For a moment, she let her mind wander through a lovely fantasy of being danced about the room by a handsome cavalry officer. Or perhaps by their host himself, the Duke of Lyons! Wouldn’t that be grand? She knew what people said about his father, whom they called “the Mad Duke,” but she never paid attention to such gossip.
She did wish she had a more fashionable gown—like the one of pink gros de Naples she’d seen in The Ladies Magazine. But fashionable gowns were expensive, which is why she had to make do with her old tartan silk one, bought when Scottish garb was all the rage. How she wished she’d picked something less . . . distinctive to make over. Everybody would take one look at her and know how poor she was.
“I can see that you’re worried,” Pierce said.
Virginia stared at him, surprised by his insight. “Only a little. I tried to make this gown more fashionable by adding a net overlay, but the sleeves are still short, so now it just looks like an outdated gown with strange sleeves.”
“No, I meant—”
“Surely people won’t fault me too much for that.” She thrust out her chin. “Though I don’t care if they do. I’m the only woman of twenty I know who’s never been to a ball. Even the farmer’s daughter next door went to one in Bath, and she’s only eighteen!”
“What I was talking about—”
“So I’m not going to let my gown or my inexperience on the dance floor keep me from enjoying myself,” she said stoutly. “I shall eat caviar and drink champagne, and for one night pretend that I’m rich. And I shall finally dance with a man.”
Pierce looked affronted. “Now see here, I’m a man.”
“Well, of course, but you’re my cousin. It’s not the same.”
“Besides,” he said, “I wasn’t talking about your gown. I meant, aren’t you worried about running into Lord Gabriel Sharpe?”
She blinked. “Why would he be there? He wasn’t at the race today.”
A few years ago, the Duke of Lyons had started an annual race—the Marsbury Stakes—run on a course on his property. This year her grandfather, Pierce’s greatuncle, General Isaac Waverly, had entered a Thoroughbred stallion from their stud farm. Lamentably, Ghost Rider had lost the race and the Marsbury Cup.
That’s why Pierce was accompanying her to the race ball tonight, instead of her grandfather—Ghost Rider’s poor performance had keenly disappointed Poppy. It had disappointed her, too, but not enough to keep her from attending the ball.
“Sharpe is Lyons’s close friend,” Pierce said. “In fact, he was at the race in Turnham Green with Roger.”
Her stomach sank. “That can’t be! The only people there were Lord Gabriel and some fellow named Kinloch—”
“The Marquess of Kinloch, yes. That was Lyons’s title before his father died and he ascended to the dukedom.”
She scowled. “No wonder Poppy refused to attend tonight. Why didn’t he tell me? I wouldn’t have come.”
“That’s why. Uncle Isaac wanted you to enjoy yourself for once. And he assumed that Sharpe wouldn’t be there since he wasn’t at the race.”
“Still, I’ll have to face the duke, who let Roger run that awful course in Turnham Green despite knowing the risks. Why did he invite us? Doesn’t he realize who we are?”
“Perhaps he’s holding out the olive branch to you and Uncle Isaac for his own part in Roger’s death, small as it was.”
She snorted. “Rather late, if you ask me.”
“Come now, you can’t blame Lyons for what happened. Or Sharpe either, for that matter.”
She glared at Pierce. They’d had this argument many a time in the seven years since her brother had died in a dangerous carriage race against Lord Gabriel. “His lordship and Kinloch—Lyons—took advantage of Roger’s being drunk—”
“You don’t know that.”
“Well, no one knows for sure, since Lord Gabriel refuses to speak of it. But Poppy says that’s what happened, and I believe him. Roger would never have agreed to threading the needle with Lord Gabriel when sober.”
The course was called “threading the needle” because it ran between two boulders with room enough for only one carriage to pass. The racer coming behind had to rein in to allow the other to drive through. Roger hadn’t pulled back in time and had been thrown into a boulder. He’d been killed instantly.
She’d hated Lord Gabriel ever since.
“Men do stupid things when they’re drunk,” Pierce said. “Especially when they’re with other men.”
“Why do you always make excuses for Lord Gabriel?”
Pierce cast her a shuttered look from eyes the exact shade of brown as Ghost Rider’s. “Because although he may be a reckless madman who risks his neck every chance he gets, he’s not the devil Uncle Isaac makes him out to be.”
“We’ll never agree on this,” she said, tugging at her drooping gloves.
“Only because you’re stubborn and intractable.”
“A family trait, I believe.”
He laughed. “Indeed it is.”
Virginia gazed out the window and tried to regain her buoyant mood, but it was no use. The ball was doomed to be ruined if Lord Gabriel showed up.
“Still,” Pierce went on, “if Sharpe does come, I hope you’ll refrain from mentioning the challenge you gave him a month and a half ago.”
“And why should I?”
“Because it’s madness!” His eyes narrowed on her. “It’s not like you to do something so irresponsible. I know you didn’t mean to issue that challenge—you were just angry—but to continue would be foolish, and you aren’t that.”
She glanced away. Sometimes Pierce had no clue what went on inside her. He and Poppy insisted upon seeing her as some pillar of domestic virtue who kept the farm running and wanted the same things all women her age wanted—a stable home and a family, even if it was just with Poppy.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want those things. She just . . . didn’t want them at the sacrifice to her soul. To the part of her that felt boxed in sometimes by constant work and responsibility. The part of her that wanted to dance at a ball.
And race Lord Gabriel Sharpe.
Pierce went on lecturing. “Besides, if Uncle Isaac ever hears that you challenged Sharpe to a race on the same course that killed Roger, he’ll put a stop to it at once.”
True. Poppy was a mite overprotective. She’d been only three years old when he’d left the cavalry to take care of her and Roger after their parents, his son and daughter-in-law, had died in a boating accident.
“How will he hear of it?” Virginia batted her eyelashes at Pierce. “Surely you wouldn’t be so cruel as to tell him.”
“Oho, don’t try your tricks on me, dear girl. They may work on Uncle Isaac, but I’m immune to such things.”
She stiffened. “I’m not a girl anymore, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Actually, I have. Which is why you must stop tormenting Lord Gabriel. This ball is your chance to find a husband. And chaps don’t like it when women go about challenging men to foolish races.”
“I’m in no hurry to marry,” she said, giving him the same lie she always gave her grandfather. “I prefer to stay with Poppy as long as possible.”
“Virginia,” Pierce said softly, “don’t be naÏve. He’s sixty-nine. The likelihood of him living much longer—”
“Don’t say it.” The very thought of Poppy dying made her stomach roil. “He’s in good health. He could live to be a hundred. Surely one of our horses will win a good prize in the coming years, enough to increase my pathetic dowry.”
“You could always marry me.” Pierce waggled his dark brown brows. “You wouldn’t even have to leave home.”
She gaped at him. Because of Roger’s death, Pierce would inherit Waverly Farm, but he’d never before suggested marriage. “And who would be sleeping in the room adjoining yours—me or your mistress?”
He scowled at her. “Now see here, I’d give up my mistress.”
“For me? The devil you would.” She smirked at him. “I know you better than that.”
“Well,” he said sullenly, “I wouldn’t keep her in the same house, at least.”
She laughed. “Now that is the Pierce Waverly I know. Which is precisely why I could never marry you.”
Unmistakable relief crossed his face. “Thank God. I’m too young to be leg-shackled.”
“Thirty isn’t young. If you were a horse, Poppy would put you out to pasture.”
“Good thing I’m not a horse,” he quipped, flashing her the lopsided grin that had every silly girl on the marriage mart swooning over him.
She straightened. “Look, we’re almost there! I think I see the house!” She smoothed her skirts as she faced him. “Do I look too much a country mouse?”
“Not at all. A city mouse perhaps—”
He laughed. “I’m joking, you little widgeon. You look perfect—eyes sparkling and cheeks blushing. That’s why I offered to marry you,” he teased.
“You didn’t offer marriage. You offered a convenient arrangement wherein you got to have your cake and eat it, too.”
He grinned. “Isn’t that always my plan?”
She shook her head at him. He was hopeless. “I should hope I’m not yet so desperate that I need to marry for convenience.”
“The trouble with you is you have your head in the clouds. You want some damned union of souls, with cooing doves flying overhead to bless the conjugal bed.”
Surprised that he’d even noticed that about her, she said, “I just think two people should be in love when they marry, that’s all.”
“What a disgusting thought,” he muttered.
That was why they could never wed. Pierce had a distinct aversion to marriage. Besides, he preferred women with big bosoms and blond hair, neither of which she had. And he liked them wild, too. Pierce’s reputation was less than stellar—though she suspected that half of it was whipped up into a froth of scandal, outrage, and intrigue by the gossip of worried mamas whose daughters were enamored of his dark good looks and devil-may-care manner.
Then there was the fact that he was practically her brother. He spent as much time at Waverly Farm as he did at his estate in Hertfordshire. She could no more picture him as her husband than his coachman.
The carriage stopped and Pierce climbed out, then helped her down. She stared open-mouthed at the famous Marsbury House—three long expanses of flint dressed with stone and anchored by four copper-domed stone towers.
The inside was even grander—marble columns and statues everywhere. As servants escorted them to the ballroom, she glimpsed rich tapestries, huge paintings in gilded frames, and silk draperies.
Oh, Lord. She didn’t belong here.
Could Pierce be right? Could the duke have invited her because he felt bad about Roger’s death? No, that made no sense. He hadn’t even attended the funeral.
Still, what other reason could there be for the invitation? The race ball at Marsbury was an exclusive affair, and although Poppy was the third son of an earl, he’d spent more of his life riding over battlefields than at fine parties like this. Having never had a formal debut, she wasn’t exactly high society, either.
When they entered the ballroom, Pierce guided her to a secluded corner so they could catch their bearings. Done all in gold and cream with gaslit chandeliers, the ballroom held a warm glow that made her heart race with anticipation. What if she did meet someone here tonight? Wouldn’t that be lovely?
After all, she wouldn’t mind finding a husband, though she feared that her requirements were unreasonable. The man would have to be willing to live at Waverly Farm until Poppy died, he’d need his own fortune, and he’d have to overlook the fact that she meant to race Lord Gabriel. All of which was a tall order.
Suddenly Pierce’s face tightened, and he bent to murmur, “Don’t look now, but Sharpe himself is leaning against that pillar over there.”
She looked at once, of course, then wished she hadn’t. Because Lord Gabriel Sharpe’s appearance had materially altered since the last time she’d seen him.
When she’d challenged him at Turnham Green, she’d been blinded by rage, and he’d been covered in dust from the race he’d just won against Lieutenant Chetwin. Tonight, however, he looked every inch the Angel of Death.
Oh, how she hated that nickname! People had given it to him after Roger’s death, and he did everything to reinforce it. He dressed entirely in black, down to his shirt and cravat, which were said to be specially dyed for him. He’d even painted his phaeton black and fitted it out with a matched pair of coal-black horses.
Angel of Death, indeed. He was using the tragic race against Roger to enhance his reputation as a fearless driver. He ought to cower in shame in a remote corner of his family’s estate—not take on every fool who demanded that he race him. How dared he strut about society without a care in the world? How dared he look so much like an Angel of Death?
Not just the death part, either. Grudgingly, she admitted that aside from his clothes, he was the very image of an angel. His gold-streaked brown hair looked as if the sun had run its fingers through its waves. And his face was like something sculpted by Michelangelo—a classic nose, a full Italian mouth, and a stubborn chin. Though she couldn’t see his eyes just now, she’d observed their color before—a mossy green with brown flecks that reminded her of secret forest glades.
She snorted. She must be mad. His eyes were those of the man who’d killed her brother. She’d only noticed him because she hated him so thoroughly that it seemed an outrage for him to be that sinfully attractive. That was the only reason.
“You’re staring,” Pierce muttered under his breath.
Oh, Lord, she was. How dared Lord Gabriel get her to stare at him?
“Come, let’s dance.” Pierce offered her his arm.
She took it, grateful to be saved from herself. Then, as they joined a long line of dancers, she saw Lord Gabriel catch sight of her. His gaze widened, then slid down her figure with rude interest.
And the last thing she saw, as Pierce whirled her into the dance, was the curst Angel of Death look straight into her eyes and smile.
LORD GABRIEL SHARPE watched as Miss Virginia Waverly danced down the length of the hall with the Earl of Devonmont. Thank God she had come. If he’d had to endure an entire blasted ball without accomplishing his purpose, he’d have blown his brains out.
Fortunately, he was well prepared for her appearance here. Jackson Pinter, the Bow Street runner helping his siblings look into the deaths of their parents, had discovered a great deal of sobering information about Miss Waverly. And Gabe meant to use it to his advantage.
“There goes your nemesis,” said Maximilian Cale, the Duke of Lyons.
Lyons was a fellow Jockey Club member and Gabe’s closest friend. He had a stable of Thoroughbreds that Gabe envied, one of which had won the Derby twice and another that had won the Royal Ascot. Gabe had bought the progeny of the latter horse last month, after he’d scraped together enough money from his wager winnings to afford it.
“Miss Waverly hardly qualifies as a nemesis,” Gabe said dryly.
Lyons snorted. “Has she renewed her challenge to you yet?”
“She hasn’t had the chance,” Gabe said, feigning nonchalance. That damned challenge had been bandied about society ever since Turnham Green, and tonight he meant to put an end to it.
“Surely she won’t.” Lyons sipped his wine. “She can’t possibly be as hotheaded as her brother.”
Gabe stiffened. Seven years, and he still couldn’t forget the sight of Roger lying twisted in the grass, his neck broken. If only . . .
But “if only” was for priests and philosophers. Gabe was seeking neither absolution nor understanding; he couldn’t change what had happened.
But perhaps he could assuage the dire results, now that he knew about them. “I suspect that Miss Waverly is not only hotheaded, but stubborn.” Gabe followed her with his eyes as Devonmont led her down the narrow row. “She came here tonight, didn’t she? She had to guess I might be here.”
“If she mentions the challenge again, will you accept it?”
“No.” He was done with running that course in Turnham Green.
Lyons smirked at him. “Afraid that the chit will beat you?”
Gabe knew better than to rise to the bait. “More afraid that she’ll run her rig over my best team of horses.”
“They say she beat Letty Lade. That’s no small feat.”
He snorted. “Letty Lade was nearly seventy by then; it’s a miracle the woman didn’t fall off her perch. Leave Miss Waverly to me. After tonight, there will be no more talk of a race.”
“What do you mean to do?”
“I intend to marry her,” Gabe said.
What else could he do? Clearly her grandfather overindulged her, and that scoundrel Devonmont probably encouraged her for his own amusement. Miss Waverly needed a man to take her in hand. And since he was partly to blame for her present situation, he’d be the one to do it. In the process, he could solve his own problem.
Lyons gaped at him. “Marry her? Why the hell would you do that?”
Gabe shrugged. “Gran is demanding that my siblings and I marry, and Miss Waverly needs a husband. Why shouldn’t it be me?”
“Because she blames you for Roger’s death?”
Gabe forced a smile. “Once she realizes that what happened with Roger was truly just an accident . . .”
He trailed off, bits of memory plaguing him. Roger rousting him out of bed for the race. Lyons looking green about the gills as they arrived at the course. Gabe’s blood running high as he approached the boulders . . .
An uncharacteristic anger boiled up in him, and he tamped it down with effort. He didn’t generally get angry. Long ago, he’d buried his emotions in a grave so deep that they could never be unearthed.
Or so he’d thought. Ever since Miss Waverly’s challenge, he’d been volatile, prone to irrational bouts of fury. It made no sense. How could one stupid challenge churn up the cold ground inside him? And yet it had. Everything seemed to tax his temper.
But tonight he must hold his anger in check, or he’d never succeed in his plans. So he fought his emotions back into the grave that felt shallower by the day.
“Why not find someone more compliant to marry?” Lyons asked.
Because her lack of compliance oddly attracted Gabe. Since he had to marry, he didn’t want some placid, toadying society chit. He wanted a wife with spirit. Who had more spirit than a woman brave enough to publicly challenge a man to a race?
Besides, after everything he’d heard about Miss Waverly and the sad life she’d been leading, he couldn’t let that situation continue. Not that he could tell Lyons that; the duke wouldn’t understand that he was only doing what was right.
He put on his usual grin. “You know me. I always like a challenge.”
Looking unconvinced, Lyons sipped his wine. “So it wasn’t your grandmother’s idea for you to marry Roger’s sister?”
“Gran didn’t specify whom we marry, just that we all do so—or none of us will inherit. And by the way, that’s not common knowledge, so I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself.”
“I suppose Miss Waverly wouldn’t like hearing that she’s the key to your gaining your inheritance. But do you need the money that badly? Oliver seems to have the estate well in hand, Jarret convinced your grandmother to give him the brewery anyway, and Minerva now has a husband who can afford to give her whatever she wants. Surely you can rely on them to lend you money if you run short.”
“It’s not that.” Given more time, he hoped to support himself on his own anyway. “I’m worried about Celia.”
“Ah, yes. I forgot about her.”
Gabe glanced over to where his sister was dancing with some foreigner twice her age and looking decidedly annoyed. She’d told Gabe only last week that she had no intention of marrying as long as Gabe stayed unmarried. We two should hold firm, she’d said, and Gran will have to give in. She’s got three of us paired off—that should satisfy her.
Gabe gritted his teeth. Gran wouldn’t be satisfied until she had the entire family marching in step to her tune. And as long as he refused to marry, Celia could blame him for the fact that they were all disinherited.
But then she would be the one to suffer. While he was putting his plans for financial independence into place, she would be shuffled from relation to relation. She said she didn’t need or want a man, but with no dowry to compensate for the weight of the family scandal on her marital prospects, she’d have no choice but to become a spinster.
He refused to be responsible for that. If Celia still wouldn’t marry after Gabe got himself leg-shackled, at least she couldn’t blame him.
“I don’t suppose you’re looking for a wife,” Gabe said hopefully.
Lyons eyed him askance. “Your lovely sister? I’m not sure I want a wife who can shoot me dead at twenty paces.”
Gabe smiled ruefully. “That seems to be the objection most men have to Celia.”
And given Lyons’s family background, he would have more of an objection than most.
Lyons returned his attention to Miss Waverly, who was sashaying into a turn. “I suppose she’s pretty enough. A bit underendowed, though.”
Underendowed? Hardly. But then, Gabe had never been attracted to women with bosoms like overstuffed chair cushions. Made them look unbalanced. He liked breasts he could take in his mouth without feeling smothered.
He’d wager Miss Waverly had fine little breasts beneath that martial gown . . . and a shapely little derriÈre to match. In fact, she was damned near close to perfect. Taller than the average female, with a trim figure that bespoke hours of walking and riding.
Then there was her beautiful hair, glossy black and swept up into some arrangement of feathers and plaid ribbons and dangling ringlets that made a man itch to take it down. And her face, too—all pert and pretty, from her saucy chin to her high, aristocratic brow. Not to mention her eyes. A man could wander for days in the depths of those cool lake eyes.
Lyons drained his wine glass and placed it on the tray of a passing footman. “Her hatred of you will be a serious obstacle to winning her. Especially since you’re not good with women.”
“What? Of course I’m good with women.”
“I don’t mean the doxies and merry widows who pursue you because you’re the Angel of Death. You don’t have to do anything to get them to like you—they just want to see if you’re as dangerous in bed as you are on the race course.” Lyons glanced back at Miss Waverly. “But she is a respectable woman, and they require finesse. You have to be able to do more than bed them. You have to be able to talk to them.”
Gabe snorted. “I can talk to women perfectly well.”
“About anything other than horses? Or how lovely they look naked?”
“I know how to turn a woman up sweet.” The dance ended, and Gabe saw Devonmont leading Miss Waverly from the floor. When the orchestra struck up a waltz, Gabe arched an eyebrow at Lyons. “Ten pounds says I can get her to dance the waltz with me.”
“Make it twenty, and you’re on.”
With a grin, Gabe sauntered off toward Miss Waverly. Devonmont was headed for the punch table. Good. That should make things easier.
As he approached her another man also did so, but Gabe took care of that with one warning glance. The man paled, then headed in the other direction.
There were definite advantages to being the Angel of Death.
She seemed oblivious to what had just happened. Tapping her foot to the music, she stared bright-eyed at the couples taking the floor. Clearly she was eager to dance again. This shouldn’t be too hard.
Gabe made a wide circuit so he could come up behind her. “Good evening, Miss Waverly.”
She stiffened, refusing to look at him. “I’m surprised to see you at such a dull diversion, Lord Gabriel. My late brother always said you disliked balls. Not enough danger, I suppose, and few opportunities to create mayhem.”
He ignored her emphasis. “Every man needs the occasional break from mayhem. And although I dislike the insipid punch, insincere smiles, and inevitable gossip, I enjoy the dancing. I’d be pleased if you gave me the honor of the next one.”
A sharp breath escaped her, and she finally turned to fix him with a cold gaze. “I would rather immerse myself in a vat of leeches.”
The vivid image made him bite back a smile.
“Thank God.” When she blinked at him, he added, “I was worried you might accept, and then we’d have to discuss that racing nonsense.”
He turned as if to walk away, and she said, “Wait!”
Ah, he had the fish on the line. He faced her again. “Yes?”
“Why can’t we discuss it right here?”
He cast a meaningful glance at the people straining to overhear the conversation between the notorious Angel of Death and the notorious female rumored to have challenged him to a race. “I’d have thought you’d prefer the privacy of a waltz for that, to prevent any chance of your grandfather finding out what you’re contemplating, but if you don’t care—”
“Oh.” She glanced nervously about. “You do have a point.”
“It’s your decision,” he said casually. “You would probably just as soon forget the whole thing, in which case—”
“No, indeed.” She lifted her chin and said in a carrying voice, “I’d be happy to dance with you, Lord Gabriel.”
“Very well.” With a cordial smile, he took her to the floor, casting a triumphant glance back at Lyons. When the duke lifted his eyes heavenward, Gabe grinned.
Not good with women, hah! What did Lyons know about it?
True, he rarely had dealings with respectable females, but he could get a woman to marry him. He was eligible enough, despite the scandal that surrounded his family, and he was generally accounted to be handsome. And he should soon inherit a tidy fortune.
Granted, Miss Waverly had a certain bias against him, but her current situation was very precarious. All he need do was show her his good side, soften her up a bit, and then point out the practical advantages to a marriage between them.
How hard could it be?
© 2011 Deborah Gonzales