Read A Most Delicate Pursuit Online
Authors: Pamela Labud
A Most Delicate Pursuit is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Pamela Labud
Excerpt from A Taste of Seduction by Bronwen Evans Â© 2016 by Bronwen Evans
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
Loveswept is a registered trademark and the Loveswept colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
A Taste of Seduction
by Bronwen Evans. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design: Carrie Devine/Seductive Designs
Cover photograph: Period Images (couple), Fairytale Backgrounds (background)
Whenever one is on the hunt, it is imperative to remember that the more cunning the prey, the more treacherous the trail. A single misstep may lead to disaster. A simple wrong turn may result in a fall. In order to succeed at the hunt, one must move ahead with caution, for the most prized capture of all requires a most delicate pursuitâ¦
âFrom the journal of His Grace, the Duke of Summerton
“Michael Carver, the Earl of Bladen,” the servant announced as Michael Carver, the fifth Earl of Bladen, entered the crowded ballroom.
If there was one thing Michael hated more than anything, it was a crush of people. More than that, he hated when they were packed into a ballroom pretending to be cheerful.
Michael grimaced. He should have packed his bags and headed for Hampshire. But, when a duke invited you to one of the most important fetes of the season, you did your best to attend. The only thing his friend, Ashton Blakely, the Duke of Summerton, would have accepted as an excuse was death, and even at that he would have demanded to see proof.
Arriving after partaking in a late dinner at White's, Michael surveyed the immaculately decorated ballroom. Encompassing almost the entire third floor of the mansion, it rivaled the royal palace. High-domed ceilings and crystal chandeliers hung over the dance floor, sparkling in the candlelight. Six small alcoves bordered the ballroom; the entrance to each was covered by red velvet drapes trimmed in gold, allowing for more private conversation. The west side of the room was entirely comprised of silver-paned glass that was cut to exquisite detail. Beyond it, one could see the dowager duchess Amelia's beautiful garden and, beyond that, the family's apple orchard.
Michael sighed. Summerton was a far different style than the cold, sharp dÃ©cor of his own estate, Vanguard Hall. His father had rarely entertained and he'd never hosted more than an occasional dinner there. As it were, kept in poor repair, the crumbling wreck of stone and wood Michael had inherited after his father's death was more of a burden than an asset. The fact that his father had died near penniless meant there hadn't been enough funds available to knock it down, let alone make it livable. After he'd returned from Spain, Michael had lived in the small visitor's cottage on the grounds; it wasn't as opulent as one of his station demanded, but it sufficed.
Summerton's estate, on the other hand, had always been a second home to him, and though his life had changed in recent years, Michael's sense of belonging there never left him. It was not so for London herself. Six months earlier he'd become embroiled in a foolish argument that had culminated in a duel. He'd won, of course. Only his victory had not come without a cost. His opponent had been much more accurate with his verbal aim than that of his pistol. While Michael had barely winged him, he'd missed the target entirely, instead shooting the ground and sending shrapnel flying everywhere.
Even now, Michael could still hear the report of their guns, smell the heavy scent of gunpowder, and feel the sharp stab as a wooden splinter hit him in his right eye. He'd fallen that day, only to awaken hours later with his head bandaged and Ash at his bedside.
Not the worst injury he'd suffered, but the most disturbing. He'd gained a scar from above his eyebrow down to his cheek. He wore a black leather eye patch, which hid most of the disfigurement. Though, even with one eye, he could see the nervous glances of the gentlemen and hear the fearful whispers of the ladies as they tried not to look at his face.
As if any of the aristocracy would consider him as a husband for their daughters.
Shaking his head, he tried to put down the memories. No need indulging in self-pity. He'd been foolish and he was reminded of it every time he looked into a mirror. More than that, he'd been warned. Another duel and he would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
It was no less than he deserved.
Michael had not been fooled by Ash's invitation. He knew that the duke's aunt Amelia, the Dowager Duchess of Summerton, was behind the gathering. She'd formed a full-on assault on all the eligible men and ladies in her circle of family and friends. More than anything, she wanted all of them to marry and give her many grandnieces, grandnephews, and assorted godchildren to fill the great halls of the ducal estate.
Fortunately, Michael had been agile enough to outrun the continuous flock of eligible young women that Amelia pushed at him at every turn. If only he could avoid Amelia's attention as deftly as he avoided her chargesâ¦
Well, it wasn't their faults, after all. They, like him, had been born to their stations, trapped in the relentless quagmire of wealth, family, and destiny. No, the ladies weren't to blame.
A delightful bunch of empty-headed, lighthearted chits, every one of them. He didn't feel too bad about giving them the brush-off, since most of them would surely be wedded to one man or another by the end of the season.
Thankfully, since the duel, he'd been avoided by most of the ton. It helped that he was no longer the handsome rogue he'd once been, stealing women's hearts and impressing their fathers.
And, it was general knowledge that his accounts were virtually empty and his father's estate falling into disrepair. In fact, the only women who pursued him now were those whose fathers were wealthy but lacking only a respectable title. Being an earl did have its disadvantages. Michael often wished he'd been born a chimney sweep.
Well, he thought, with the state of his estate these days, perhaps he might end up getting his wish.
“So glad you could come, my friend,” Ash said, appearing at Michael's side. The duke and former army commander could make his way through an active battlefield and come out unscathed.
“As if I'd a choice about it,” Michael said as he followed his friend to one of the alcoves.
“Don't be so dramatic. You're overdue for a visit to Summerton.” He took a glass of wine from a nearby serving tray and offered Michael the same. “Devilishly warm in here, isn't it?”
Michael agreed, sipping his drink. “It is indeed. Looks to be quite the crush.”
His friend sighed. “Yet another attempt by my aunt to find a husband for my sister-in-law. After two years and every eligible man in the ton at her feet, you'd think Beatrice would choose one.”
“Perhaps she doesn't want to marry at all. I know I don't. I'm quite the happy bachelor, you know. She may feel the same.”
Ash finished the last of his drink. “Nonsense. She's a woman. They thrive on denizens of children and doting husbands.”
“As I recall, your wife was not of that opinion.”
Ash laughed. “She did come to change her mind, which was most fortunate for me.” He sighed. “She saved me, Michael. And, the right woman will save you as wellâ¦if you let her.”
Michael patted his friend's shoulder. “There are a few of us who are beyond saving, my friend.”
Before Ash could argue the point, a butler approached them.
“Excuse me, Your Grace, but Her Grace, the dowager duchess, requests an audience with Lord Bladen.”
“Ah,” Ash said. “My aunt is at it again. Fancies herself an expert on everything romantic.”
Michael finished the last of his drink. “Your aunt's matchmaking doesn't worry me. I've managed to avoid her machinations thus far.”
“Trust me, she'll be doubling her efforts,” Ash said. “I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't have you leg-shackled before the season ends.”
Michael laughed with his friend, but the thought had occurred to him as well. Try as he might, he couldn't shake the feeling that his friend's suggestion might yet become his fate.
“Let's hope not, shall we?” he said, hoping his tone didn't sound as desperate as he felt. After all, getting married was the very last thing he needed to do.
Just as he started to turn away, Ash's man Bentley approached them.
Bowing to them, the servant muttered low. “I beg your pardon, Your Grace, Lord Bladen, but there's a most insistent gentleman demanding an audience with His Grace. His name is Bainbridge. He says it's regarding most important business.” He then held out a note for the duke.
“Business?” Michael asked. “The man's pluck. Doesn't he know this is a party?”
Ash scanned the missive's contents. “It seems everyone is allowed to enjoy themselves but me. No matter, you appease Amelia and I shall see to quell this unpleasantness.”
“Are you sure you don't need a second? I can always send my apologies to your aunt.”
“And have her think I'm in league to help you dodge the marriage mart. I think it's far safer for me to face a loaded pistol than that. No worries. I'll send for you if need be.” He turned to his servant. “Where is he now?”
“I've placed him in your study, Your Grace.”
“Good. I'll go there directly.” He turned to Michael. “Come find me later. There are things we need to discuss about next season's grand hunt. I've some ideas I think you'll find interesting.”
Michael nodded. “Until later.”
Watching Ash leave, there was one thing Michael knew for certain. For all the troubles of his own life these days, he didn't envy his friend in the least. Having known the duke since childhood, he alone saw the heavy burden of the man's title. Still, Ash bore it well, without complaint. And now settled with his wife, Caroline, and their children, he'd even managed a bit of happiness. A far different life than Michael could ever expect to have, to be sure.
Despite the dowager duchess's attempts at snaring him in her matrimonial machinations, Michael would ever remain the bachelor. As tempting as it might be, after the fiasco of his former marriage, he'd vowed to never travel that road again. Not out of any sense of self-preservation, but rather to keep from subjecting another woman to certain disaster.
Marrying Michael was far worse than an unpleasant affair; it was a death sentence, after all.
“Miss Hawkins”âLord Henderson bowed low before herâ“it would please me more than words could describe if you'd favor me with a dance.”
An older, thick-waisted, white-haired gentleman stood before her, and though it was the very last thing in the world she wanted to do, Beatrice Hawkins curtsied low and held her hand out to him.
“It's I who am honored by your request.”
The moment his cold, clammy hand grabbed on to hers, a rise of nausea washed up her throat. Glancing up, she could see her sister, Caroline Hawkins Blakely, now the Duchess of Summerton, smiling at her.
Of course, she'd be happy about Bea's pairing with the popinjay. Why wouldn't she? It would solve the one problem she'd had since Bea's first season. It was not long ago that Caro had practically pushed Bea into the arms of the duke, an act that had turned sideways and ended up with Caro resigning her bluestocking aspirations and entering into her now happy state of matrimony.
That was the problem with married people who were ridiculously happy. They expect everyone around them to follow suit. Well, that was the last thing that Beatrice Hawkins wanted for herself. Trouble was, no amount of talking could convince her sister otherwise.
“You dance divinely,” Henderson said, as he dragged her around a bad attempt at a quadrille. “And, may I say, you look divine tonight?”
Gah! Did the man not know any other words? An earl, it was said that he was most eloquent when speaking in the House of Lords.
“My lord, you flatter me,” she said, lightly stepping aside to avoid his large, lumbering feet from crushing her toes. “It is you who dance”âshe broadened her false smileâ“divinely.”
Of course, it was clear by his blank expression, he knew none of her mockery.
“Indeed. Miss, you are quite an angel. If I may be so bold. Perhaps you and I might retire to a more private setting?”
“You pay me such grand favor. What will the other ladies think of me if I steal you away from their midst?”
He laughed at her statement. “You are a treasure, miss.”
Bea did her best not to wince at his speech. “If I am, it is because of your fine presence. But, I must beg off. I've had a full day with the dressmaker and I was just getting ready to retire for the evening.”
“Then, let me escort you. I would be most encouraged if you'd share a glass of claret with me before finding your rest?”
It was getting harder and harder to maintain her false cheer, but Bea knew well that if she didn't agree, he would never turn loose of her.
“Very well, one drink.”
Of course, she would escape him at the very first opportunity, and the sooner the better. Without saying another word, he bent his arm to her and motioned to the door.
“Allow me, miss.” Half dragging her, he headed toward the alcove.
Arm in arm, they walked to the small, draped enclosure, one of the six that surrounded the main ballroom. In it were two chairs, a settee, a dimly lit lamp, and a thick, red velvet drape with gold trim covering the entrance.
Beyond that were a set of French doors that opened out onto the balcony. Below, there was a garden complete with a trellis and a tangle of vines that, she'd learned at her first Summerton ball, made a perfect escape to an extended oak tree branch. A girl could climb down without much effort and escape from whatever party or suitor one chose.
Still, the room was perfect for couples who wanted to slip away from the curious eyes of the ton. Bea shuddered to think how many trysts might have taken place in the small, secluded parlors.
She sent a nervous glance at Henderson. What if he had other intentions? Memories of another time, another party flashed through her mind. It had been during her first season, and she was so naive, so gullible, that she'd trodden into dangerous circumstances that had ended in disaster and her ruination. She'd barely escaped discovery that night, and if anyone ever guessedâ¦
She glanced to where her sister stood talking to a circle of ladies. Caroline was so engaged in her conversation, she barely looked up when Bea shot her a glance.
“I must insist that we have a chaperone, my lord. You understand.”
“Of course.” He turned and hailed one of the attendants. “Please fetch us some of His Grace's finest claret. Miss Hawkins and I will be enjoying a brief respite from the party.”