Authors: Tina Gabrielle
“I’m listening, but I don’t think I like it—”
“It’s perfect. We agree to marry for six months until the scandal has passed and my twin siblings are not tarnished. Thereafter, we can go our separate ways. Me to Paris and you back to your lady friend. Many married couples among the
lead separate lives, some on separate continents. Since neither of us desires to be shackled by marriage, it’s the perfect solution.”
“And what about intimate relations during those six months?”
She gave an anxious little cough. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Really?” he drawled. “Just a few hours ago that is all you had thought about.”
She ignored his sarcastic tone. “It must be a passionless relationship. It should be easy to maintain. Separate bedrooms are commonplace after all.”
“Ah, what do I get out of this fraudulent marriage?”
“It will assuage your guilt. Whatever your honor is telling you to do, then it should be satisfied.”
“My honor can be salvaged by a real marriage.”
At his firm resolve, she switched tactics. “But what of your previous life? Your lady friend? Your work? Everything will change if you marry me. As my husband, Father will expect you to limit, maybe even cease, your work at the Exchange.”
“If we agree to a temporary marriage, then you need only comply for six months. Surely that short amount of time is endurable.” Leaning forward, she eyed him with a calculating expression. “Most importantly, you would be assured access to the inner circle of the ton.”
“What makes you think I would want that?” he asked softly, mockingly.
“I presume you plan to seek out the true culprit of the theft of the Thomas Gainsborough painting? No one is more convinced than I that you are not the thief. Whoever the criminal is, he is most assuredly working for a member of the
, someone who can afford expensive art, or at the least, someone who has the financial means to hire a crooked auctioneer such as Dante Black to frame you. As my husband, you would be on the guest list of every ball, party, masque, and soiree. You could move freely amongst them, listen to their conversations, and even search their houses for information. No one would be the wiser.”
“Lady Isabel, you never cease to amaze me. You’re correct in presuming that I
learn the identity of the true thief,” he said, his black eyes glowing with a savage inner fire. “I’m not convinced it’s Dante Black either, but another more influential and wealthy mastermind behind the ill deed.”
“We are in agreement then?” she asked.
“Ah, but you’re forgetting one thing.”
“You may now believe you will never want to marry, but what if circumstances change?”
She tilted her head at him and smiled. “I don’t believe a woman must marry to find fulfillment or happiness. Auntie Lil never married and she is quite content, joyous really. But in the unlikely event that circumstances should change, then we could seek a divorce.”
Marcus shook his head. “Divorce is near impossible and requires a Private Act of Parliament. Only rare cases involving a wife’s adultery have been sufficient grounds of late. Legal separation is more available.”
She didn’t miss a beat, desperate to convince him. “Since we will not have children, and I truly have no desire to marry, separation suits us perfectly.”
“I commend your swift thinking, Lady Isabel. If half of the stockbrokers at the Exchange thought as quickly on their feet as you, I would have no clients left.”
She quickly raised her glass, lest he change his mind. “A toast to us then?”
“I have a better way to seal our bargain.” He plucked the glass from her limp hand and pulled her into his arms. “If I am going to embark on a passionless marriage of convenience, then I want to sample what I am giving up.”
Isabel’s eyes widened and her lips parted in surprise. A thrill of frightened anticipation touched her spine a moment before Marcus’s mouth lowered to hers.
The touch of his lips was a delicious sensation, and his firm mouth coaxed and demanded her response. Her arms rose of their own volition, her fingers digging into his arms, as the heat of the kiss sizzled like molten fire through her veins. Her breasts, pressed against his hard chest, tingled from the contact. His tongue traced the soft fullness of her bottom lip, and she shivered.
His nearness was overwhelming. Nothing in her childhood fantasies had prepared her for the reality of the man. He was so much bigger, bolder…so much more
He pulled her closer still, and she gasped. He slipped in between her parted lips to explore the recesses of her mouth. She tightened her arms around his neck, ten fingers sinking into the dark curls on his head. His hair was not rough, as she had thought, but felt like silk as it glided between her fingers. He did not wear cloying cologne like most gentlemen, but instead he smelled clean, fresh, as if he spent much of his time outdoors.
Her eyes slid closed; her skin grew hot. Her heart beat like a drum, and her breathing became ragged. Or was that his breathing? She couldn’t tell. All she knew was that her trembling limbs clung to him.
She had kissed other men. But never had those rushed interludes felt like this. Those kisses had been wet and sloppy—the partners rushed and overeager as if the kissing was just an inconvenience to do what they really sought to do—grope her thigh, her buttocks, or her breast.
Here was a man who enjoyed kissing, took his time and thoroughly enjoyed holding her, exploring her lips, her mouth, her…
His lips moved to her ear, then the curve of her neck. She gasped again—the sensations overwhelming.
“Oh, my,” she whispered. “I hadn’t expected it to be quite so…enjoyable.”
He raised his head, and then dropped his arms from around her. “Neither did I,” he said, his voice harsh.
She was confused by his sudden withdrawal, the tensing of his body. Perhaps he wasn’t as affected by their shared embrace as she? She knew there had been lovers in his roguish days.
What could a mere kiss mean to a former rake?
Then she met his gaze and changed her opinion. There was a wild look in his dark eyes, a smoldering promise of more to come. The tensing of his powerful body was not from cold disinterest, but from measured restraint.
“I used to dream about you when I was a girl,” she blurted out, then was immediately embarrassed by the admission.
She frowned. “A little humility would suit you.”
“Perhaps. But if we are to
the loving couple, then we must be completely honest with each other. Do you agree?”
“Of course. Then if I may ask, why did you kiss me?”
“Because I wanted to. Because I’ve thought of little else since you propositioned me in Lord Westley’s erotic gallery.”
Her heartbeat throbbed in her ears at his words. “I see,” she said, raising a forefinger to her swollen bottom lip.
Footsteps echoed down the hall, and the library door swung open. Edward Cameron stood in the doorway.
“Well, Mr. Hawksley? Is everything settled between the two of you then?”
Marcus nodded. “We are in agreement, Lord Malvern.”
“Good. We shall announce the engagement immediately to stem the tide of forthcoming gossip. The sooner the marriage takes place, the better. I’ll attempt to acquire a Special License, but if my connections are unsuccessful, then we shall have to arrange for the reading of the banns. Shall I contact Lord Ardmore, or will you?”
Marcus straightened. “There’s no need. I’ll speak with my father and older brother.”
Isabel recalled Charlotte’s bit of gossip at Lady Holloway’s ball. Marcus Hawksley had become estranged from his family after entering trade as a stockbroker. It had seemed like such a harsh course of action by the Earl of Ardmore. Had the old man no feelings for his younger son? And what of Marcus’s brother, the heir to the earldom? How could he fault his younger sibling for seeking to earn a living rather than begging for every shilling from his father as all younger sons had to do?
It made no sense. She wondered what else was behind the rift. Glancing at Marcus’s strong profile, she decided then and there that she would find out not just the truth about his family, but about who was trying to frame him for thievery.
“You did what?”
Isabel poured Charlotte a cup of tea and took a seat across from her friend. They were in the parlor of Isabel’s home, where Isabel had invited Charlotte for afternoon tea to update her on yesterday’s shocking course of events.
“I don’t know what to think myself,” Isabel said. “I was trying to get out of one engagement only to find myself forced into another.”
Charlotte sat still, her color alarmingly pale. Isabelle reached across an end table, past the sterling silver tray, to touch her friend’s hand. “Charlotte?”
Charlotte blinked, her eyes focusing on Isabel’s face. “Engaged to Marcus Hawksley? You lucky devil, Isabel.”
“Whatever do you mean? As my closest friend, you know that I don’t want to marry.”
“But that was to Lord Walling,” Charlotte said. “The
Lord Walling. Not to the young, devilishly masculine Marcus Hawksley. The man you used to incessantly talk about after your father’s summer house party when you were twelve.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“So? Look me in the eye and tell me you are not attracted to him now.”
Isabel fidgeted in her seat. “That’s not the point. I must tell you that Marcus and I have come to an agreement, an understanding that no one is to know about. No one but you. But you must promise not to whisper our secret to another soul. I know how you love to gossip, Charlotte, but you must swear to keep your flapping lips sealed.”
Charlotte’s blue eyes widened. “You have raised my curiosity, Isabel. I promise on our lifelong friendship.”
Isabel glanced at the closed parlor door to ensure no servants were about, and then turned to look at Charlotte. “We are to be together in name only,” Isabel whispered.
Charlotte blinked. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Our relationship shall remain passionless until the gossip has subsided, and Marcus can discover the true thief of the Thomas Gainsborough painting. Then we will be free to live our separate lives. I can travel to live with Auntie Lil in Paris, and Marcus can return to his…his former life.”
For some reason, Isabel could not bring herself to divulge—even to Charlotte—that Marcus Hawksley had a lady friend waiting for him.
Charlotte set her teacup on a saucer with a loud
and sat forward. “Have you lost your wits, Isabel? How in the name of Hades do you plan on remaining
around Marcus Hawksley—a man you used to pine after and secretly watch? Did you not sneak into his guest room at your father’s country manor, rummage through his wardrobe, and wear his shirts?”
Isabel’s face grew warm at the memory. “I told you that was years ago.”
Charlotte dismissed Isabel’s argument with a wave of her hand. “I don’t believe you. Perhaps you should give
marriage a try.”
“No! You know what I have planned, what I have looked forward to for years. Marriage will ruin everything. Married women must forgo all their freedom to the dictates and whims of their husbands. My own mother was no different. Even though she loved my father, she sacrificed her dreams of writing because it was not socially acceptable for a countess to pen love stories. She always had regrets that even my loving father was aware of and dismissed as a woman’s unimportant fancy. I’ll not follow in her footsteps.”
Charlotte sighed. “All right, Isabel. I’ll support you in this as in everything. I can only hope to be as
as you are and find myself engaged to a man as ruggedly attractive as Marcus Hawksley.”
Isabel cracked a smile. “Thank you, Charlotte.”
Charlotte leaned close. “Now tell me about the auctioneer who was after Marcus. What if he tries to accuse Marcus again?”
“Marcus plans to find the true thief, or at the least, determine who hired the thief to frame him. He believes the culprit has wealth and status.”
“Oh, I do love a good mystery,” Charlotte said, licking her lips. “I shall help you investigate the members of the
. They are all hypocrites as far as I am concerned. You should hear Mother’s friends. Their vicious tongues are nothing less than shocking in their attempts to discredit others behind their backs.”
Isabel gave a grudging nod. “I told Marcus that I would help him infiltrate high society in order to find the evildoer. But what I failed to mention was that my involvement would be more than as a titled lady on his arm at every social event of the Season, and that I would take on more of an active role.”
“Ah, it seems Marcus Hawksley has yet to learn the true constitution of his betrothed.”
“Everyone will soon learn what has occurred at the Westley mansion,” Isabel said. “Lady Yarmouth happened to be visiting from Paris and had accompanied Lord Yarmouth to the auction. Your mother is a friend of hers, is she not?”
“Of course. My mother and stepfather are having a ball next Saturday, and Lord and Lady Yarmouth will be in attendance.”
“With my mother gone, do you think your mother would officially announce my engagement?” Isabel asked.
Charlotte’s face creased into a sudden smile. “What a wonderful idea! My stepfather, even more than my mother, loves attracting attention to their events, and what would attract more attention than the engagement of Lady Isabel Cameron to the Earl of Ardmore’s youngest son?”
“You mean the Earl of Ardmore’s damaged son.”
“No matter. It will add fuel to the fire. My stepfather will be in his glory.” Charlotte licked her pink lips and lifted her teacup. “Now tell me about Lord Westley’s room of erotic art and don’t miss a detail.”