Authors: Lauren Royal
Tags: #Historical Romance
At last she couldn't stand it. She raced up to meet her brothers, nosing Pandora between Jason's and Ford's mounts.
"He's titled, isn't he?" she demanded. "Or you wouldn't even be jesting about this marriage. Who is he?"
Ford looked at her, his blue eyes all innocence. "Who?"
"That man you just betrothed me to! What's his name, damn it?"
"Oh, you mean Trick? Trick Caldwell?"
"All right. Enough is enough." She glared at them one by one. "I did nothing wrong. No matter what you think it looked like, we were washing a wine stain from my skirt. There's no reason for me to marry him."
Her brothers stared at her and then at one another over her head. Individually they nodded.
Then Jason spoke for them all. "Did you choose another of your suitors to marry, then?"
"That again? I don't believe this. None of my
are at all suitable, and I won't marry any of them. You're finished ordering me around."
"You're right about that," he said. "I'm finished. It's long past time you wed, and Trick's as good a man as any."
"But he's a highwayman," she wailed.
"Not anymore," Jason snapped. The men closed ranks, and nothing else was said for the rest of the ride home.
Trick paced around the cottage for a good fifteen minutes, huffing in disbelief, wondering how a simple jaunt to save his props from the rain had ended in such disaster.
When pacing failed to resolve anything, he rode home to Amberley House to dismiss the rest of his houseguests.
Compton, his butler, met him at the door. "Good afternoon, your grace."
"Is it?" Trick handed him his drenched cloak. "What happened while I was gone?"
Compton frowned, one of his habitual expressions. "Lords Cainewood, Greystone, and Lakefield have taken their leave. A messenger arrived with word that their sister had disappeared. They went off to find you, to enlist your help—"
And turned his life upside down in the process.
Leaving the butler mid-sentence, Trick stalked into his card room. "My apologies, gentlemen, but the party's over."
Peeved, he waved a hand in a hopeless attempt to clear the smoky air. The four remaining guests, all aristocrats from neighboring estates, had apparently passed the time by smoking up Trick's small hoard of expensive Virginia cheroots, literally worth their weight in silver.
He coughed and waved some more. "It seems I'm soon to be wed, and I'm in no mood for cards. Besides which, the Chase brothers won't be returning, so we haven't enough for two tables—"
"Wed? As in married?" David Fielding interrupted in a puff of tobacco, blinking his brown eyes, which always looked a little crossed. "You cannot be serious."
"Aye, as in married." Trick smiled grimly. "And I assure you, I've never been more serious in my life."
The only one without a cheroot between his teeth, John Garrick heaved his paunchy form from his chair. "Amberley, I...I don't know what to say."
Garrick, speechless. Imagine that. In general, the man never shut up, lecturing his hapless companions on the folly of their swearing, drinking, whoring, or any other of a number of activities he considered morally reprehensible, an annoying superior smile on his flabby lips.
He flapped those lips now, rather ineffectively, Trick thought. "I...I just don't know what to say."
"Then don't say anything," Trick suggested.
Striding across the room, he plucked a half-smoked cheroot from Fielding's lips, then did the same with Robert Faraday and Thomas Milner. They sat there, their mouths in little Os where the brown cheroots used to be, while he stubbed out the burning tobacco in one of the crystal dishes he kept on the card tables for that purpose.
"I'll send servants to help you pack," he informed them. "And someone else will have to host next month, as a female will be living here."
"But...Amberley." Robert Faraday finally found his voice. He skimmed the long brown hair from his face and rubbed his stubbled chin. "No surcoats, no shaving, no periwigs, no women. You laid down the rules when you set up the card club. And you said then that you'd marry the day the devil settled in heaven."
"He's arrived, gentlemen."
At Trick's sardonic pronouncement, Garrick narrowed his eyes. The other men rose, and they all drifted toward the door, presumably to collect their things.
"Who will host?" Trick pressed. "I've no intention of spending all my weekends at home. Faraday, Milner? Damn, you both have wives. Garrick?"
"I'm...remodeling. No space at present."
Trick frowned; the man lived in a fifty-room manor house. Old, yes, and in dire need of renovations, but surely there was an area they could use to play cards and enough bedrooms in sufficient shape to accommodate seven guests.
"We'll ask Cainewood," Milner suggested. "Lady Cainewood can go stay with his brother's wife. I'll drop by there later this—"
"Cainewood has that sister," Fielding interrupted. "Er...Lady Kendra, that's it."
"Oh, damn. You're right. He'd have to send her to Greystone, too."
"Nay, gentlemen. Lady Kendra will be here. Though you'll address her as Her Grace the Duchess of Amberley." When the men's mouths dropped open again, Trick shot them a wry smile. "Aye, the Chases will host—it's the least they can do. Till next month, then?"
Before they could ask any questions he'd rather not answer, Trick grabbed a fresh cheroot and left to closet himself in his study, where he went straight to the carved walnut cabinet and poured himself a shot of strong Scotch whisky.
Kendra. He couldn't decide whether he wanted to kiss her or throttle her brothers. Perhaps both, although it probably wouldn't be wise to threaten the Chases. Greystone, especially. From what he'd heard, Colin was deadly with a sword.
Trick sighed and dropped into his favorite worn leather chair. In the six months since King Charles had insisted he take up residence in his father's ridiculously overblown house, this was the only room he'd redecorated to his own taste—classic, familiar, and comfortable. Lifting a heavy silver candlestick, he lit the cheroot and stuck it between his teeth, then sat back, rolling the glass between his palms and watching the candlelight glint off the faceted crystal.
What was he going to do? What
he do? What did he
The answer came to him, as clear as the flawless crystal cupped between his hands.
He wanted to marry Kendra.
He'd wanted to bed her the moment he'd glimpsed her in the shadows of that carriage. Then he'd thought it impossible—Cainewood's sister, of all people. Cainewood, the last bastion of respectability in a society where morals were meaningless.
No one at King Charles II's court was virtuous; no one, that was, except Kendra. The Chase men had sheltered her for all of her twenty-three years. Even Trick knew that, although he made it a point to keep as far from court as humanly possible.
Having her had been unimaginable, but now it was imminent. Of course, he would have to marry her in order to bed her, but his wedding day might as well come now as later—he had to sire an heir. And Lady Kendra Chase would make as fine a wife as any. She was of suitable aristocratic birth, and Lord knew she set his blood on fire. While it was likely she had no dowry to speak of—Cainewood was as cash-strapped as most of the Royalist nobility—the fact was, Trick didn't need anyone else's money. He had more of his own than he knew what to do with.
He blew out a perfect smoke ring and watched it rise to the Amberley crests carved into the oak ceiling. His vision blurred until he could almost see Kendra's expressive face. Hers was a refreshing, wholesome beauty, and though of course he didn't love her, he did want her. He supposed he was lucky to find that in a wife.
Aye, he would marry her. Smiling at the thought, he stubbed out the cheroot, threw back his head, and downed the whisky. The warmth of the liquor curled in his stomach. Down lower, his body stirred as he imagined Kendra in his bed. The more he thought about that, the more pleased he became.
But that didn't mean he wasn't angry as hell at the situation.
"Pardon the interruption, your grace."
Trick jerked around, still uneasy with the formal address—never mind that he'd held the title for three years. God knew he'd never wanted it; he'd never wanted anything that came from his father. But the damnable cur had died, and now people—most especially his father's old retainers, like stuffy Compton—insisted on addressing Trick formally.
Trick gazed at the middle-aged man, wondering if he'd been born with a pike for a spine. Compton's receding gray hair was combed straight back from his forehead, and his jowls shook when he spoke, making Trick want to laugh.
"The Earl of Greystone is here to see you, your grace."
Already? Could this family not leave him in peace for one evening? Trick sighed expansively, causing Compton's nostrils to flare in disapproval of such a show of emotion.
"Bring him in," Trick muttered, rising to pour himself another shot.
"Congratulations, Amberley," Colin Chase said from behind him. "Shall we drink to your wedding tomorrow afternoon?"
Trick paused, then silently set about filling a second glass. "Tomorrow, is it?" He turned to hand the man his drink, meeting his eyes, deeper green than Kendra's but just as lively and intelligent. "Bloody hell, can you not give a man time to get used to the idea?"
Colin sipped before answering, regarding Trick over the rim. "Jason can pull strings if he wants to. And time is of the essence...your heir may be on his way already."
"I didn't bed your—"
"I'm not judging you, Amberley." Colin flashed him a crooked grin. "My own daughter arrived a month early."
Trick's gaze went to the hilt of Colin's ever-present sword. His reply was slow and measured. "I told you, I didn't bed your sister."
"You know, Kendra kept claiming much the same thing on the way home. Did her fighting best to convince us of it, too."
He'd bet she had. "You didn't believe her?"
"Jason doesn't know what to believe. Frankly, I don't think he cares. Kendra's been a noose around his neck for years. She's absolutely refused to consider anyone suitable, so as far as he's concerned, this circumstance is a dream come true. God knows she would never have looked at you twice if she'd known you're a duke. A stubborn one, Kendra is."
"And now that she knows?"
"She doesn't." Colin laughed. "Thinks you're an impoverished minor aristocrat forced to highway robbery, and she's mad as hell at us for condoning the match. To our faces, that is. I suspect that, privately, she's walking on air. The lady's in love."
"Love?" Trick rolled his eyes. He'd forgotten about her naïve ideas on love. "Don't tell me you're another believer in love at first sight?"
"It seems to be the Chase way," Colin mused. "My wife, Amethyst, captured my heart with a single glance across a jewelry counter."
"It's insane," Trick declared, throwing back the rest of his whisky. "You're all insane. This is utterly outrageous."
"You're angry, then?"
Trick considered that for a moment. "Not exactly," he said slowly. "I think your strong-arm tactics are abhorrent, but as to the outcome...I suppose I must wed, and your sister's as good a choice as any."
Before long, he hoped, he'd be back at the London docks, where he could better oversee his burgeoning shipping empire. Just as soon as he'd satisfied the king's demand. Having Kendra here in the countryside, raising his children and awaiting his attentions, was not an unpleasing thought.
"I haven't the stomach for courtship," he added, "so a business arrangement suits my purposes just fine."
"Business arrangement? I know what a man looks like when he wants a woman, and I saw that look in your eyes. You'd better not hurt my sister."
not the one forcing her into this marriage."
Colin looked astonished at that accusation. "There's no way she'd be forced into any marriage—this one included—if we weren't one hundred percent certain this is right for her. If her happiness weren't our primary concern, she'd have been off our hands years ago—you'd need only see her list of rejected suitors to be convinced of that." He met Trick's gaze. "She wants this."
Trick had to consciously close his gaping mouth. "How do you know?"
The other man sighed. "Pride will keep her from admitting it. But you're the first suitor she hasn't outright refused, whether she realizes it or not. And maybe not all that much happened today, but there's something between you two, Amberley—you cannot deny it."
While Trick reeled under that onslaught, Colin drew breath and smiled. "I'm sure it will work out all around." He raised his glass. "To the groom."
Trick looked at his own empty glass, then shrugged and went to refill it. He might as well get foxed on his last night as a free man. "To the groom," he echoed wryly before tossing the liquor down in one gulp.
Colin drained his own drink and set it on a table. "Well, I'd best get home. Big day tomorrow for all of us, eh?"
Nodding in return, Colin stuck out his hand. "Till tomorrow, then. Let me just send the messenger back to Cainewood. Jason will be relieved to hear you've agreed."
"Agreed?" Incredulous, Trick pulled his hand from Colin's grasp. "I thought I had no choice."
"Of course you had a choice. What kind of people do you take us for?"
"Did you think I came here to run you through if you failed to cooperate?"
"The thought crossed my mind," Trick said dryly.
"You said yourself it was a sound decision. Coercion was the last thing in our heads. We're not looking to gain an enemy for an in-law. We want Kendra to be happy." He pivoted on a heel, heading for the door. "And you, of course."
"But you made it sound—"
"Good evening, Trick. Sleep well," he said and left.
For the second time that day, Trick found himself wondering what had happened. He was embarking on a new life, his ship about to sail for ports unknown.