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The Earl in My Bed

Rebellious Desires Series

For years, Daphne Wentworth, Countess Carrington has loved her powerful, enigmatic husband, despite the fact that they married under less than ideal circumstances. But no more. Finally at her breaking point, Daphne intends to create a scandal so big, her austere husband will have no choice but to divorce her. Except everything goes awry when he surprises her with the last thing she expected.

Sylvester Wentworth, Earl of Carrington, has returned to London for one reason—to seduce his wife. After a near-death experience, he is in need of an heir and means to make his marriage a real one. To his shock, though, his wicked, beautiful countess wants the exact opposite, and he must now do everything possible to entice his countess to stay forever.

Chapter One

Six years earlier…

Hampstead, England, 1816

“Good God!”

Miss Daphne Elizabeth Collins whipped her head up, searching for the source of that expression of appalled disbelief. The light of the noonday sun valiantly peeking from behind bloated clouds obscured her vision. She kicked against the strong currents of the river while holding onto the wiggling bundle in her arms.

“Thank heavens! Don’t just stand there, help me,” she gasped out. A light misting rain fell, and thunder rumbled in the darkened sky, a warning that more rain was on the horizon.

The gentleman who’d stumbled upon her swung from his impressive horse and rushed toward the embankment. He knelt in the mud, uncaring that he was dirtying his breeches, and held out his hands. Releasing the jutting bramble, she slapped her hand into his, trusting that he would not allow the river to take her away. Dear God, let us be safe soon.

He braced himself and hauled her from the churning water. He tried to stand, tugging her with him, but they tumbled along the slippery slope. He slammed into the earth with a grunt but was of a mind to protect her by wrapping his arms around her as she fell against him. The feel of his powerfully muscled body beneath hers sent shock and intrigue rushing through her veins.

She could not have been in the water for more than a few minutes, but she was chilled to her bones. Daphne stirred, and her cold nose brushed against his rigid jawline.

“I must say, this is not at all proper, is it?” she said into the curve of his neck, conscious of the wonderful heat emanating from him.

With a muttered and very ungentlemanlike curse, he pushed her off him as if he had touched the plague, and Daphne found herself sprawled indecorously onto mud and grass. Her dress was muddied and ruined, her bonnet sat askew atop her head, there was a rip in her stocking, and one of her boots had somehow been lost. She was horribly aware of her bedraggled appearance. If Papa saw her now, she would have to be the very picture of female respectability and demure modesty before he would allow her to leave her chamber. Somehow, she would need to return to Seaview Manor and slip through the kitchens to avoid her father and governess discovering her terribly disheveled state. She chuckled softly at the challenge of pulling the wool over the eyes of her very observant and priggish governess.

“There is nothing remotely humorous in this situation,” her rescuer said a trifle peevishly.

As if to mock his assertions, her four-month-old energetic and badly trained wolfhound, Gulliver, licked the stranger’s face, yipping and wagging his tail.

“I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole,” he muttered, trying to find purchase on the slippery slope as he stood. “The day cannot worsen.”

Daphne was saved from the necessity of a reply as her puppy bounded over to her and licked along her chin. No doubt the wretch was grateful she had jumped into the water without thought to save his life.

“If you will allow me to assist you, miss?”

She glanced up at one of the most handsome gentlemen she had ever seen, even a messy and irritated one. Vivid green eyes peered down at her with studied seriousness.

“Miss Daphne Collins,” she said, reaching for the hand he held out.

Once again, he attempted to pull her up, and they went tumbling down. He cursed. She laughed. It was all remarkably ridiculous.

A reluctant smile tugged at his lips. “Perhaps if we are very slow and careful.”

“I agree, Mister…?”

“Carrington.”

She smiled, and they carefully found purchase and made their way up the slope toward the horse. The rain fell harder, and a mortifying sneeze rushed from her. An elegantly embroidered handkerchief materialized, and she took it, rather grateful for his courteousness. “Thank you, Mr. Carrington.”

“Are you here alone?”

She nodded.

“How far do you need to go?”

She swiped several droplets of rain from her face. “Seaview Manor, a few miles from here.” She pointed east, barely able to distinguish her home in the distance. “I was chasing Gulliver when he fell into the water. I was obliged to rescue the scamp,” she said, bending to scoop him into her arms.

The harsh disapproval of her rescuer’s mouth softened as he peered at her puppy. “Your actions were foolhardy. What if I hadn’t ridden along?”

A low growl escaped Gulliver, as if he understood this unknown gentleman was scolding her reckless bid to save him.

“I’ve never been accused of being cowardly, and my little love would have drowned had I not saved him.” Another frightful sneeze escaped her into the wonderfully fragranced handkerchief.

“Heavier rain is imminent, and we must find shelter. Have you ever ridden astride?” he asked.

“Yes,” she admitted, casting a quick glance about, though there was one else present to hear her confession of improper behavior.

He mounted his horse with masculine and graceful ease. He held out his hand to her, and she blinked before reaching up and allowing him to aid her onto the horse, behind him. Her entire body blushed to be so pressed up against him. Gulliver whined and tried to wriggle from her grasp, but she held tightly onto him as the stranger thundered off.

And not in the direction of her home.

Unbearable alarm slithered through her, and releasing his shoulder, she grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked.

“Sweet Mercy,” he growled, bringing the horse to a shuddering halt.

Daphne pointed left. “My home is that way, Mr. Carrington. I will be forced to do you irreparable harm if you do not take me there at once.”

A strangled sound of disbelief emanated from him, and she winced.

“It is too far, and we will not make it before the deluge. I am riding to Kellits Hall, which is only a few minutes this way,” he said with exaggerated patience, looking as if he wished to throttle her, before once again urging his horse to a careful speed, the rolling hills of the countryside, carpeted with the greenest of grass and bluebells, a blur.

“Very well,” she said, trying to swallow her apprehension.

True to his word, they arrived at Kellits Hall a few short minutes later, and he assisted her down.

She reflected, not for the first time, on how incredibly handsome he was. His hair was as black as coal, and his eyes the darkest green she had ever beheld, like the very grass upon which they stood. He was dressed in a brown jacket, a blue waistcoat, and light-colored breeches that disappeared into knee-high riding boots. Even his mouth was beautifully shaped. She jolted, mortified at the direction of her thoughts. He seemed terribly close, and the need to create a safe distance became imperative. He had an air of rakish danger about him, and perhaps it was men like him, with dastardly reputations, that her governess had warned her to be wary of.

She hurried up the steps while he led the horse away, presumably toward the stables. Daphne knocked, and after waiting a few beats, the cold gust of wind and rain urged her to open the door and step inside. The large hallway was dimmed, and no welcoming fire greeted her. In fact, all the furniture had been covered with white sheets, and fine dust was settled on the parquet floor.

The door slammed shut, and she slapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her scream as she whirled around. Mr. Carrington leveled amused eyes upon her person.

“It is only me. Let’s withdraw to the drawing room. I left a fire there earlier.”

She tried to recall deportment lessons that would possibly guide her in how to behave at this unexpected development of sheltering from the storm with a strange gentleman in an evidently unoccupied house. Daphne frantically searched her memory but there was nothing.

He prowled ahead, and she followed him into a room where the furniture was likewise covered in sheets. “I’ve heard it is to be let,” she said, hurrying over to the grate where a fire burned low. “Are you to occupy Kellits Hall with your family, Mr. Carrington?”

He grunted but made no reply, shrugging from his soaked jacket.

His hair was wet, and his waistcoat and white shirt were plastered to the powerfully defined muscles beneath them. A very strange but sweet twisting ache stirred in her belly, and her heart quickened. Blushing furiously, she dragged her gaze from his lithe form. She winced, for Papa would be grossly disappointed in any conduct that could be deemed unladylike. He had been trying so hard since Mamma died to ensure his daughter had the proper lessons to secure herself a suitable suitor at her coming out, which was only a few months away. An event she anticipated with great expectation.

She glanced toward Mr. Carrington again. He looked to be about the same age as her older brother who was down from Cambridge for the week. Perhaps they were familiar? “Are you friends with Henry?”

“Who, may I ask, is Henry?”

Fiddlesticks. “The honorable Henry Collins, my brother. I thought you might know him.”

“I don’t. How old are you?” Mr. Carrington asked abruptly. “Forgive my manners,” he amended, raking his fingers through his hair, creating a wave of curls.

“I will be seventeen in a week,” Daphne said, tugging the bonnet from her head.

His attention snapped to her hair. He sucked in a sharp and obvious breath, dealing her an arrested stare. Daphne knew she must look a fright—her soft pink day gown was dripping and clung quite uncomfortably, with grass and dirt stains on the hems and her back. And never forget she only had on the one boot. How mortifying. She then noted his gaze remained an inordinate time on her silvery blond hair before he lowered his regard to her face.

The warm admiration in his eyes as they stroked over her was alarming…and captivating. At her silence, he tugged at his cravat, the nervous action pulling a smile to her lips.

“I do not mean to be rude, but I cannot stay with you here alone.”

She glanced at the windows. “The weather is frightfully unaccommodating of that wish.”

He started to pace like a caged lion, and she couldn’t help staring at his graceful movements. It suddenly struck her that he was worried about being caught alone with her. “Oh, dear.”

A decidedly imperious brow lifted. “I see you finally understand my predicament.”

Oh, I do. To abandon her so very far from home in an empty manor was ungentlemanly, but to stay with her would surely compromise her reputation and his honor. A tremor of uncertainty quivered through her. “My father would understand the need that forced us alone for a few minutes,” she said, flushing.

“Wives and daughters of society have tried to trap me with less inventive scenarios than this,” he said with a rueful twist of his lips.

“Are you such a good catch, then?” she asked archly.

He graced her with a look that was vaguely sardonic. “I’ve had to leave several balls early because of their desperate machinations.”

The contempt in his words was stinging. He was clearly wealthy with impeccable breeding, and Mr. Carrington had an air of refinement that made her feel gauche. Perhaps he was wealthy with estimable connections that had made him sought after. Though it must be unpleasant to be hounded so. She made a silent promise to herself to never be so obvious or ridiculous with a suitor at her debut. The man she married must love and cherish her with his whole being, and of course, she would admire him with a similar ardent regard.

“Papa has honor,” she insisted. Not that she could reveal her father’s dear desire for her to secure a titled gentleman. No mere mister or second son would do for his daughter, a statement he had made to the few suitors who had attempted to pay a call upon her these past months. Papa had been unforgivably rude and unrepentant.

“Mothers are more marriage minded.”

“Mamma is dead, so please suffer no fear in that regard.”

He froze, then slowly spun on his heels to face her. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said gruffly.

“It was years ago,” replied Daphne, burying the flare of familiar sorrow.

He shot her a side-eyed glance. “It has been three years and six days since I lost my father. I still feel the sting of it every day.”

“I am very sorry for your loss as well, sir.”

“Please, let us be informal. I’m Sylvester.”

Sylvester. She suddenly felt warm, despite her soaked clothing. “Oh no, I couldn’t. That would not be at all proper, Mr. Carrington.”

He hesitated slightly, then said, “As you wish, Miss Collins.”

He smiled, and the charm of it made her breath hitch. A dangerous promise—or was it a threat—lurked in his smile. The thrill of the moment was undeniable, and Daphne felt as if she were taking tea with a suitor.

Somehow, they started a discourse, and he engaged her quite effortlessly in a conversation he seemed genuinely interested in. They did not speak of the things her governess had instructed her to have discourse on. There was no mention of the weather, or balls, or routes, or any on-dits. They spoke of the war and slavery, the affairs of the nation, and the fact that he wanted to explore the world. The passion he radiated as he spoke of traveling informed her that he did not like being restricted. In fact, the way he paced, his movements so carefully controlled, hinted at a gentleman who did not know how to simply pause and appreciate the simple pleasure of life.

Or perhaps she was fanciful.

He hadn’t seemed appalled that she’d formed her own opinions and shared them without reservations. He’d expressed no disapproval of her intelligence but simply accepted that she was well-read. How curious and frightfully appealing.

What had started as a dreary day had taken quite a turn and was arguably one of the most amiable afternoons she could ever recall. Almost an hour had passed before she belatedly realized, while he now knew a lot about her family and her precious Gulliver, Mr. Carrington hardly spoke of his family.

And once the rain eased, he ended their conversation quite brusquely and urged her from the house. He carried her home but only tipped his hat and whirled away the instant she had dismounted at the forecourt of Seaview Manor. Her disappointment was great. He made no indication if he would call upon her father and introduce himself, nor had he confirmed if he was letting Kellits Hall.

Surely she had not misconstrued his admiration whilst they had chatted?

Gulliver barked, but Mr. Carrington did not glance back. Turning on her heels, Daphne snuck inside before she caught a chill. A couple of hours later, freshly scrubbed from a bath and dressed in a short-sleeved white day gown, adorned with a bright red waist sash, she stared through the windows at the sleeting rain. Had Mr. Carrington returned to Kellits Hall? Or had he ridden off elsewhere?

She wondered what her father knew of the mysterious man. Surely there must be a delicate way to pry the information from him without being too obvious in her admiration. She made her way from the drawing room toward her papa’s study.

Daphne knocked and waited. Alarm slithered through her as a pained groan came through the thick oak door. She wrenched it open. “Papa!”

He was bent over his desk, pain furrowing his bushy brows. She rushed to his side, helping him into his seat. “Dear Heavens, what is wrong, Papa?”

The hand he had clutched to his chest eased slightly, and the lines of strain bracketing his mouth eventually smoothed. “I am well, my dear, very well indeed. This is a mild distemper of my stomach, no doubt from indulging in too rich a luncheon.”

“Please do not lie to me.” Daphne was young, but she was not daft. “You were clutching your chest.”

He brushed a hand across her cheek tenderly. “Come now, there is nothing to worry about. Sit with me. I feel we haven’t had one of our long talks for a while. Then perhaps you may read to me.”

She did not point out it was only yesterday they had strolled along the lawns of the estate and recalled their wonderful time with Mamma. And she had read to him then, The Mysterious Warning by Eliza Parsons, a gothic story he had read to Daphne and Mamma as they had curled on the sofa by the fire in the drawing room. Instead, she walked over to the sofa closest to him, pushed her slippers from her feet, and curled her stocking-clad legs on the sofa. Shockingly, her papa did not berate her for her unladylike pose.

“How was your day, my dear?”

“Are you familiar with a Mr. Carrington who is to let Kellits Hall?” A flush ran over her entire body at her blurt, and she glanced away from the shrewd speculation that leaped into her father’s eyes.

“How are you acquainted with him, young lady?”

Deplorably, her heart skipped. “I met Mr. Carrington on my return walk. He was very good-natured and courteous,” she hedged. And handsome and so terribly appealing.

“You like this Carrington?”

Oh dear. “Papa!”

“My child, we have each other’s confidence and trust. And you know my wish for you is a worthy alliance.”

His unwavering stare prompted her into speech. “Our meeting was so brief I did not form an opinion, I am merely curious, Papa.”

His mouth curved wryly. “I am not familiar with a mister, only with the Earl of Carrington. There was some speculation he was intent on purchasing Kellits Hall. And when I happened upon him this morning during my ride, he seemed to be touring Kellits Hall lands. He is known to be a most eligible gentleman with over one hundred thousand pounds a year.”

An earl! Why hadn’t he said so? She was pleasantly intrigued. Now she understood why he hadn’t been flustered when during their discourse she had revealed her father to be Viscount Blagrove. He had been so attentive and good-natured. Best of all, he had made her heart race, very much like how her mamma had said Papa made her feel.

How glorious it would be if he fell in love with her. One of the few things Daphne was certain of was that she wanted to marry for the most passionate and daring love, like the kind her mother had with her father. Though their union had been arranged, it had grown into an enviable love match, or so Mamma had recounted countless times. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the earl paid a call to me on my come out?”

“And he would still not be worthy of you, my dear Daphne.”

Embarrassed to be speaking so frankly of the silly hopes in her heart, she opened the book. “Let me read to you, Papa, then I’ll consult with the cook on tonight’s menu.” And she would also send a discreet note to summon the doctor. Her mother had passed away from a wasting illness, and while there were days Daphne feared her papa was ready to be with his beloved wife in heaven, she was not quite ready to lose him. Perhaps not for another fifty years or more. “Shall I read?”

He nodded slowly, but there was a peculiar gleam in his eyes she did not understand. Unaccountably, it made her a bit apprehensive. Pushing the absurd thought aside, she opened the pages of The Mysterious Warning and settled in for a most amiable time with her father. She refused to dwell further on a certain earl who most likely had no more thoughts of her.

~~~

Sylvester Augustus Wentworth, Earl of Carrington, was exceedingly puzzled at the letter he’d gotten from Lord Blagrove, requesting an urgent audience. Sylvester had no interaction with the viscount outside of their brief meeting when he toured Kellits Hall grounds, and unexpectedly encountering his exquisitely charming and delightful daughter. Despite her disheveled state, the honorable Miss Daphne Collins had presented a very pretty and agreeable picture. Her lips had been so sweetly curved and tempting. Wisps of wet hair had escaped her chignon and framed her lovely features. Her deep-set brown eyes were particularly fine, and they had glowed with intelligence and warmth that instantly stirred his senses.

She had been striking in her loveliness. He would allow that she had appeared lithe and graceful, and more sweetly sensual than all the ladies he’d encountered this season and last. She had tempted the scoundrel in him, and he had so badly wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her. Thankfully he had regained his good senses and had acted with respect to her sensibilities.

Sylvester had been disturbed by his attraction to Miss Collins and had felt like a debaucher, though he had been very careful with his manners. It would not do for the girl to cry improper conduct on his part, forcing him to then be honorable.

He was only three and twenty and had wicked plans before settling down with a wife. Sylvester was not quite ready for domesticity and its delights, which his mother and half the ton touted. A wife would hinder the plans he had for his pleasures and travels. Settling down would come later, for he knew and respected his duty to his title, and when the time came, he would select his bride with fine care.

So what could the viscount want? Had Miss Collins revealed they had spent a part of the afternoon alone, unchaperoned? Or was it something far more serious?

The note did seem rather urgent and troubling.

Lord Carrington.

A matter of grave importance has come to my attention that concerns your family. I ask for an audience at your earliest convenience.

Faithfully,

Robert Collins, Viscount Blagrove.

A matter that concerned his family. Sylvester’s father had died three years past, leaving him to assume his seat earlier than anticipated. But he had been up to the task, having been groomed so relentlessly on his duty from the age of eight years, eschewing all form of childhood play. His father had been single-mindedly obsessed about the continuation of the title and what Sylvester’s duty to it must be. His father had left behind a heartbroken wife and daughter. Their wellbeing was now in his hands, and there was nothing he wanted more than to be capable and care for his mother and sister. He also had a stable of uncles, aunts, and cousins. Which of his family members could Lord Blagrove possess news of grave importance about?

It was that question that prompted Sylvester to travel once more to Hampstead a few days later. He was now seated in a wingback chair in a firelit study, which was decorated in dark green hues, facing the portly viscount. The viscount seemed as if he had lost weight and gained more gray hairs since Sylvester had last seen him. The buttons of his coat did not bulge as if his rotund belly would part the buttons. His pallor had also decidedly worsened. Was the man ill?

With all the pleasantries, and even a shared glass of brandy out of the way, he was getting impatient. “Why have you requested a meeting, Lord Blagrove?”

“Ah, a man who likes to get on with business.”

“I was not aware we had any business together. Come, man, speak now of this matter which involves my family.”

The viscount reached into the top drawer of his desk and withdrew a thick envelope. He placed it gently on the surface. “This is for you.”

The man’s air of secrecy was curious. Biting back a curse, Sylvester reached for the envelope, but the viscount placed a very deliberate fingertip atop the thick vellum paper, preventing him from taking it.

“The contents of these reports are exceedingly accurate, and there will be a cost for my silence.”

It did not take him long to see the old man was most assuredly serious. His heart froze in his chest, and the slide of alarm through his veins was decidedly unpleasant. “I beg your pardon,” he said stiffly. The gall of the man was shocking.

A cough jerked Lord Blagrove’s frame. With almost painful movements, he took a handkerchief to his lips and dabbed. The eyes that peeked up at Sylvester were anything but frail, they were shrewd and ruthless.

Not releasing his gaze, Sylvester retrieved the envelope and pried it open, frowning at the single sheet of paper that held a detailed report.

Lady Henrietta Wentworth.

The bold scrawl of his sister’s name atop the sheet of paper had an unnamed emotion crawling through his body. With great reluctance, he read the page, fierce denial roaring through him. His nineteen-year-old sister, whom he lovingly called Hetty simply to tease her, was engaged to the Earl of Hartington and Hetty professed on every occasion how ardently in love she was with the man. But this filthy report detailed his sister having a child a year ago, one she had given up to a couple in Cornwall.

“This is a lie,” he snarled over the silence, rage and violence throbbing in his voice.

How had the investigator come by such a report? It even gave the name of her vile seducer, and the exact date her daughter had arrived into the world to a mother who had hidden the truth of her and had given her away to save herself from scandal and ignominy. If there was any veracity to this, he had failed his family.

Sylvester glanced up, crumbling the paper in his fist.

The viscount had relaxed back into his chair as if he had not delivered news that he knew was most distressing.

“I’m sure you’ve heard of the broker.”

Sylvester stiffened. Of course he’d heard unfounded rumors of the blackguard who founded his wealth on others pain and secrets. “I can’t say I have.”

The man’s lips creased into a semblance of a smile. “I have in my possession Lord Danbridge’s letters. They are of the most sordid kind, which confirms his affair with your sister.”

An affair? She would have been only seventeen, and Danbridge was a married man of some years, who had garnered quite a reputation as a rake amongst his set. How in God’s name had his sweet and properly brought up sister fallen under the man’s wiles? Where had his mother been? Where had he been?

“I have the next copy of this report locked away. With signed testimonies from a midwife and the letters from Danbridge, all bound and ready to be delivered to a scandal sheet of my choice.”

Sylvester stared at the viscount, and the man cleared his throat. “Let me be clear, Lord Carrington, if I should be met with a foul end, my solicitors are instructed to act accordingly. I’ve planned this very carefully.”

The man had accurately read the murderous thoughts beating through Sylvester’s soul.

“You will force me to reveal a most sordid affair that will see your family ruined, and your sister’s current alliance damaged beyond repair. Not even a venerable title like yours will be able to render her respectable,” the viscount murmured, something akin to regret flashing in his eyes before quickly vanishing. “Let’s negotiate like the gentlemen we are.”

Foreboding slithered through Sylvester’s veins. “What do you want?”

“I’ve thought this through rather carefully, my lord. I want you to court and then marry my daughter by the end of the month. A special license will be procured, and our families united with all haste.”

Miss Daphne Collins.

“She is a child,” he snapped in disbelief, not to mention he would never give this vile blackmailer the satisfaction. “I have no notion of her character, nor she of mine.”

“Yet it is you she wants, and you she shall have.”

“What in God’s name do you mean?”

“My daughter likes you, Carrington, and I must say I never hoped to land an earl for her. Certainly, a gentleman for her hand, but not one of your stature and lineage. I greatly admired your father, you know. He was a fine man.”

Sylvester slowly stood. “She knows nothing of the man I am or aspire to be. Why would she wish to be my wife?”

“It only matters to me that she would.”

Anger lit in his veins. “You would cause my family untold pain with these vicious unfounded rumors because your spoiled daughter has told you she wants my title?” For the last two seasons, he’d been chased relentlessly by marriage-minded debutantes and countless matchmaking mamas. Sylvester was acquainted with the lengths and antics mothers and daughters indulged in when they set their cap on an unwilling suitor, but this…this was disgusting and unforgivable.

“Yes,” replied the viscount without any evident remorse.

How ill-judged Sylvester had been of her character, and how silly of him to have believed her to be a witty and pleasant young lady. He had thought her sweet and innocent. The very thought of being shackled for life to a covetous, grasping female like Miss Collins filled him with icy anger. “You do realize I would never love a deceptive bitch like her,” he said cuttingly.

There was a slight tightening around Lord Blagrove’s mouth, but he replied mildly, “She will be a countess, there is no more I could wish for my daughter. With the need you will have for an heir, I am certain you will eventually be overcome by her charms.”

“If you will excuse me,” Sylvester said sharply, “the air has been decidedly fouled.” With a huff of disgust, he spun on his heels.

“You will be back, my lord,” Blagrove said softly. “For I will not hand over these papers until my daughter is your wife.”

Sylvester ignored him, wrenched the door open, and with clipped strides exited the manor…and collided with Miss Collins. The bundle of flowers dropped from her hands, and she glanced up. She visibly brightened, delight burning in her brown eyes. The sun struck the silvery blond of her hair, lighting the darker strands with golden fire. She made a breathtaking picture.

Disgust slithered through him that he could admire anything about her, knowing her avaricious heart.

“My lord, I was not aware you had called,” she said, dipping into a quick, graceful curtsey. “How do you fare?”

Fearing he would throttle the scheming beauty, he skirted around her without acknowledgment. She gasped, but Sylvester did not even deign to look back. His carriage was brought around, and he hauled himself inside, hating the pain twisting through his body.

Could his sister truly have endured such hardship, and he’d been unaware? Or was this simply a vile rumor? Did he have a niece in the world that had been abandoned by her family?

He would confront his mother, since surely Hetty would not have acted on her own. Someone had made the arrangements, if the reports were true. And he feared they were, for he recalled a time Hetty had been in the country with their mother, a prolonged illness, he had believed.

The trap Miss Collins had laid was intricate, and he saw no way to escape it without bringing ruin to his sister. If he didn’t know better, he would believe Miss Collins had orchestrated her rescue by the river.

Scrubbing a hand over his face, he prayed the report was a lie and Hetty had not abandoned her child to strangers. He prayed she hadn’t been used and discarded by a vile seducer like Danbridge.

Closing his eyes, Sylvester settled against the squabs, hating that if the reports were true, he would be obliged to bind himself to the manipulative Miss Collins, for he would do anything to protect his family. A heavy weight settled into his gut at the very idea of marrying someone who only saw his wealth and status. How careful he had been to avoid the mothers and daughters of the ton who pursued him with such ruthless matrimonial fervor. How it infuriated him his choice was being blackmailed away from him, and how it stung that while he had admired her wit and beauty, she’d only had avarice in her heart and eyes.

I’ll not give her any part of me. The vow traveled through his soul.

She could take the bloody title, but nothing else.

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Copyright © 2018 by Stacy Reid. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

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