Authors: Rebecca Kelley
The Wedding Chase
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A Loveswept eBook Edition
Copyright © 1998 by Becky Kjelstrom
by Debra Dixon © 1994 by Debra Dixon.
by Judith E. French copyright © 1999 by Judith E. French.
A Case for Romance
by Katie Rose copyright © 1999 by Katie Rose.
All Rights Reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
LOVESWEPT and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
The Wedding Chase
was originally published in paperback by Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. in 1998.
Cover design: Derek Walls
Cover Illustration: Aleta Rafton
A performance introducing the principal theme
“By Satan’s pointed tail, what’s all the ruckus?” Wolfgang Hardwicke, earl of Northcliffe, slammed a fistful of cards on the table. “Can’t even concentrate on my game. ’Cuse me, gents. I’ll only be out a hand or two.” Standing suddenly, he upset the rickety chair and strode from the dimly lit main salon toward the offending noise. He threw open the door of the private gaming room, almost knocking the flimsy thing off its hinges.
Inside, he noted a tall, disheveled young man swaying near a scowling, well-muscled giant. Two tough-looking men hovered near a table across the dingy room, one small and wiry, the other short and squat. Instinctively, Wolfgang felt for the dagger tucked in his waistcoat pocket.
“Bloody cheat!” The young man slurred, his balance off kilter as he lunged for the much larger man.
Wolfgang intercepted the young man neatly, swinging him into the nearest empty chair—which promptly crumbled, tumbling both of them to the floor.
“Lemme at him.” The young man, at least ten years shy
of Wolfgang’s thirty-two years, struggled to rise, impeded by Wolfgang’s heavier form firmly ensconced on his chest.
“You’re foxed.” Wolfgang stood, pushing long black hair, freed of its usual queue, from his eyes. Turning from the young man, he glanced around at the coarse men lining the dirty, smoke-filled room. “What happened here?”
“Fleeced me.” The young man still tried unsuccessfully to stand. Wolfgang extended a hand, yanking him to his feet.
“Won fair ’n’ square, guv.” The giant, big enough to tower over Wolfgang’s own considerable height, folded his beefy arms defiantly over his chest. “Fleetwood ’ere is so drunk ’e wouldn’t know ’is own pa, let alone an ace from a king.”
“And cheating?” Wolfgang’s blandly spoken inquiry met stares from three sets of sullen eyes.
“A gent don’t accuse a gent of cheatin’.” But the fellow with the beefy arms was obviously no gentleman, and the odds being what they were, Wolfgang felt it unwise to question his claim.
Young Fleetwood was not so wise. “You’re no gennleman, you’re a cheat.”
The big man took a step forward, clenching hamlike fists at his sides. Wolfgang took a diplomatic step backward. Fleetwood, however, straightened his tall, slender form, and took a wobbly step forward. Wolfgang felt the tension in the squalid room swell, tightening around him like the skin around a sprained ankle. If he had any sense, he’d turn and walk away, leaving the youthful fool to deal with his own stupidity. But he paused too long, and the time for sensible inaction passed. Fleetwood somehow connected his fist to the fleshy cheek of the huge brute with a sickening thud, and the fight was on.
One of the smaller ruffians, wiry and surprisingly strong, launched himself at Wolfgang, who took one punch to the stomach before collecting himself and landing bone-crunching
hits to his assailant’s face and neck. When the third man, the squat one, circled around him, Wolfgang knew this was not the right moment for a fair fight. He disposed of the wiry man before him with a hard, sure kick to that most sensitive spot between the legs.
Reaching under his jacket, Wolfgang withdrew his dagger. A swift twist of his torso and a snaking of his wrist, and the squat man stumbled back, howling and clutching an open gash on his cheek. Lunging forward, growling low in his throat, Wolfgang sent the man careening into the hallway.
One down. One out.
Wiping sweat from his forehead, Wolfgang spun back to the one-sided battle being waged on the other side of the shabby gaming room. The beefy man gripped Fleetwood by the throat. Still wielding the dagger, Wolfgang sliced through shirt and skin. With a savage shout the giant loosed Fleetwood and turned on Wolfgang. Wolfgang slashed at the broad chest, leaving behind more torn clothing streaked bright red. The giant lurched back, raising both hands. Wolfgang grabbed Fleetwood’s arm and edged toward the door.
Fleetwood stumbled, striking a glancing blow to Wolfgang’s shoulder. “You’ll not cheat me and walk away.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Wolfgang gripped him tighter. The young fool didn’t know a friend from an enemy.
The beefy man, heedless of his wounds, came toward them again. Wolfgang released Fleetwood’s arm. Switching his dagger rapidly to his left hand, he met Fleetwood’s jaw firmly with his right, then caught the now limp form under the arms.
“Sorry. You’ll thank me later.” Wolfgang dragged Fleetwood swiftly into the hallway. “Don’t try to follow,” he barked, kicking the shaky door shut behind them.
“Maven! Where is that demon from hell?” He yanked Fleetwood down the narrow hall into a small, sparse office
and dropped him into a chair, shouting to a skinny youth peering through the doorway. “Get Maven now!”
The grubby boy dashed off in search of the gaming hell proprietor. Maven, tall and hawkish, appeared in moments, looking down his nose at the unconscious Fleetwood. “Young fellow’s cut from the same cloth as his father. He’ll meet a bad end. But it won’t be here. Don’t bring him back, Captain.” Maven smiled thinly. “Oh, excuse me,
“I didn’t bring him here.” Wolfgang ignored Maven’s slur of the unexpected title he’d assumed a scant year ago. Actually he preferred Captain himself. “I haven’t a damn clue why I came to his rescue.” He paced the tiny room. “I should have left the chuckleheaded pup to fend for himself.”
“You carved up a few of my best regulars.” Maven’s mouth cracked in a very dry, condescending imitation of a smile.
“Best? You’re due for an upgrade in customers.” Wolfgang sighed, long and loud. “Give me his direction. Settle with my card partners and order my coach, then help me carry him out.”
Despite the cool, bumpy ride back into the more fashionable residential districts of London, Fleetwood still lay unconscious when they reached a modest town house on Brook Street. The first rays of dawn streaked across the gray sky, providing enough light for Wolfgang to see the young man’s face. He was scarcely more than a boy and as green as the rawest recruits he’d seen fight for glory against Boney, only to die on a mud-soaked Spanish battlefield.
Pulling Fleetwood out of the coach, he swung him over his shoulder, grimacing at the strong odor of whiskey on the man’s breath. Before he’d reached the bottom stair of the house, the front door inched open and a round face illuminated by candlelight peered down at him.
“The young master’s home,” Wolfgang called out,
climbing the steps to the entryway. “Where should I deposit him?”
The servant pulled the door open and, glancing nervously up and down the street, gestured them inside. As Wolfgang moved to lower his charge to a chair in the hall, the man cleared his throat. “Could you please carry him upstairs?”
“Do I look like a footman?”
“Forgive me, sir.” The man’s round face took on a distinctly reddish cast. “Could you please carry him into the salon?”
“Do you have a footman?” Wolfgang shifted his weight, Fleetwood still dangling over his shoulder.
The pudgy retainer shook his head, eyes aimed at the floor.
“Lead on, I’ll take him to his room, although I’m sure if I refused it wouldn’t be the first time he bunked on a sofa or the floor.” Steadying his grip on the drunken cub’s knees, Wolfgang followed the servant up the stairs.
At the top of the stairs Fleetwood suddenly jerked. Struggling to maintain his balance, Wolfgang lurched into the wall, slamming his shoulder and Fleetwood’s backside into a portrait.
“Bloody spawn of the devil.” Wolfgang regained his footing, as his little guide waved the candelabra before him. The door across from him swung wide, and a figure in white with a cascade of dark hair stepped into the hall.
“Robin?” her husky voice questioned.
“Master Robin’s a little under the weather, coming home with a friend,” the servant told her, then clasped Wolfgang’s arm with a surprisingly firm grip, directing him toward the nearest doorway.
Wolfgang cast one last look at the woman in white, his connoisseur’s eye assessing her tall form, noting the slender hips and full breasts not quite hidden by the thin cloth of her night rail. He hurriedly laid Fleetwood out on the indicated
bed, returning to the hall as the door across the way softly shut.
Sauntering down the stairs, he grinned. Wolfgang Hardwicke, lecher and Good, Samaritan. Brushing off his hands he exited the house and jumped into the waiting carriage. In heaven’s log of good works, this deed would cover him for the next six months of debauchery: a little wine, a little gambling, and a lot of women. Clean, married women from whom he’d be unlikely to contract syphilis or matrimony. And if she met his criteria, maybe he’d start with that shapely apparition upstairs.