Authors: Pamela Labud
To Catch a Lady
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
A Most Delicate Pursuit
by Pamela Labud copyright Â© 2016 by Pamela Labud
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
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colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
A Most Delicate Pursuit
by Pamela Labud. 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 photographs: Novelstock, Inc. (couple), Zdenek Kintr / Depositphotos.com (background)
In order to be successful in the hunt, you must demonstrate the utmost of patience when securing the target, become more cunning than the fox in planning your actions, and prove more nimble than the fastest deer when engaging in the chase. And once the prey is in your sights, you must always aim for the heartâ¦
From the journal of His Grace, the Duke of Summerton
“Gentlemenâ¦” Ashton Blakely, the Duke of Summerton, motioned his friends into the main dining hall of Slyddon Castle. Ash regretted calling them together at so late an hour, but circumstances were dire. He, more than anyone, knew the importance of preparation and planning.
His aunt's missive had been very clear. If he waited for events to unfold, they'd be caught like rats in a trap.
Their very lives were at stake.
It was late. The fire burned low in the hearth and candlelight shadow figures danced around the room, a dozen dark ladies performing a quadrille in a macabre midnight soiree.
Ash rubbed his eyes. Lack of sleep had set a match to the flames of his imagination as he envisioned the abysmal future that lurked ahead of them all if they didn't take immediate action.
He took a moment to study the men present. Three faces stared up at him, their expressions ranging from mild curiosity to outright suspicion. No matter, he thought; they would know the gist of it soon enough.
They'd formed a bond on the battlefield, and it would hold even through the impending disaster that faced them.
“What the devil has you rumbling about at this hour?” demanded Michael Carver, earl of Bladen. “You'd think the bloody French army was about to come bursting into the castle with rifles blazing.”
Michael's dark hair and sharp amber eyes only added to his reputation of being a gambler and ne'er-do-well. Ash's oldest and most trusted friend, he was a most colorful figure and the tales of his exploits were often used to frighten children and warn young ladies.
Half of the gentlemen of
despised him and the other half wanted to be him.
“A matter of utmost importance, I assure you,” Ash said in his most desperate tone.
Braden Winegood cleared his throat. “Surely, it can't be as bad as all that.”
Unlike Ash, who'd just recently come into his title, the dashing, blond, blue-eyed Viscount of Waverton had been born to his lofty position. Reared on respectability and grace from childhood, he was the truest representation of the cool, calm visage of aristocracy. Tonight, however, he must have sensed the threat that hovered over them, because a single bead of sweat broke out on his too-perfect brow.
“It's far worse than any of you know.”
“Whatever it is, out with it, man,” Mr. Jeremy Horton urged in an impatient tone. “We're not getting any younger, you know.”
The oldest among them and the last to join their group, he'd been a field surgeon during their time in Spain. These days, however, he'd turned to the study of all things medical, with hopes of becoming a physician one day. He was tall and lean, with dark copper hair and emerald eyes so intense that one often felt the heat of his gaze. Still, he carried his years well. Only the smattering of gray at his temples gave the barest hint to his true age of thirty-nine years.
Ash took a deep breath. “I just this day heard the most disturbing news. A plague is about to be visited upon us, gentlemen. One that will cripple us as sure as the French pox.”
“A plague?” Jeremy asked. “I've not heard of any new maladies of late. Are you sure of your sources?”
“I am. But it's not a plight to ravage our bodies. Far worse than that.”
“Is it lethal?” Braden asked.
“Not immediately, but I've heard that it can send some to an early grave.”
“Who will be at risk?” Michael asked.
“The four of us, for sure, but once it catches on, maybe others.”
“The four of us?” Jeremy sat back in his chair. “That's most odd. I shall consult my texts. Perhaps we can figure out a treatment. What's the name of this mysterious condition?”
Ash shook his head. “I'm not sure what it's being called these days. I do know that it's not something you can cure with herbs or powders.”
“But why us?” Braden asked. “Was it something we picked up in Spain?”
“Not particularly, though our exploits on foreign soil certainly didn't help the matter.”
“Something we picked up?” Michael thought for a moment. “I thought we'd agreed to keep clear of the doxies.”
Ash waved at them. “It's nothing like that. No, I'm afraid the crisis we face is more of the domestic sort. It seems my aunt Amelia has been busy frequenting the parlors of Londonâ¦”
“Waitâyour aunt has something to do with this?” Jeremy asked.
“Dear God.” Michael sat back in his chair. “We are doomed.”
“I'm still confused,” Braden said, his face looking from man to man. “What are you going on about, Ash?”
“My aunt has set out on a campaign of her own. One that will end with the four of us locked in holy matrimony, as sure as the sun rises and sets.”
Jeremy laughed. “Is that all? You had me thinking we're going to be on our deathbeds by the end of the London season.”
“We might very well be, if Amelia has her way. Being tended to by our brides, no doubt. Every bit of life wrung from us.” Michael bent forward until his forehead touched the table.
Braden began to rub his hands together, a gesture that Ash had seen him make during times of extreme stress. “We don't have to agree to your aunt's intentions, you know. We are men, after all. We can stand up on our own, exercise our own will.” He paused, looking around the room. “Can't we?”
Ash shook his head. “I'm sorry, my lad. Once Amelia has set her mind to something, there will be no denying her. She has the ear of the ton and of every mother from east to west. Mark my words, you'll be chased down by every unattached female in all the realm.”
“But what can we do?” Braden asked.
“Ha!” Jeremy laughed. “Not a thing, dear boy. Thankfully, I am not among your ilk, being not wealthy, titled, or young. You all have my condolences.”
Ash scoffed. “Don't think for one moment that you are safe from her machinations. It isn't only the young ladies she has in mind, you know. There are plenty of lonely widows who require a good match. Women of substance and quality. I'm afraid that you're in as much peril as are the rest of us.”
“What's to be done about it? Are we to just lie down and let the women trample over us like a herd of hungry beasts?” Jeremy asked.
“Of course not,” Ash said. “I have a plan.”
Michael coughed. “Now we're in trouble.”
“Michael,” Jeremy said. “Let the man speak. Go on, Ash. What have you in mind? An extended trip to the Continent, perhaps?”
Braden leaned forward. “Or, might we go to India, follow the Silk Roadâ¦”
“Gentlemen, the one thing we must not do is run away. Fleeing from our fate will only postpone the inevitable. We must take charge of the situation now, while we still have a chance.”
“I don't like the sound of this,” Michael said.
Ash ignored his comment. “I propose that we make the first attack. Fire the first round, so to speak.”
“I don't know,” Jeremy began.
“Think about it.” Ash leaned forward. “We are hunters, are we not? We come to this sacred place every year, spend a week stalking our prey, not satisfied until we've filled our bellies and hung handsome trophies on our walls.”
“Yes, but Ash,” Braden began, “I don't see how that will help us now.”
Ash sat back in his chair. “Instead of letting the women have the upper hand, we go on the assault. We become the kings of our own destinies.”
“Just how do you propose we accomplish such a feat?” Michael asked.
Ash shrugged. “The very same way we take down any great beast. We shall stalk the women in their own lairs, in every buggy and parlor, at Almack's and every soiree of the season. We shall cast the widest net and choose from among them the very best wives men could ask for. Women who understand our need for independence, who allow us the freedom we demand and the companionship we desire. In short, the perfect mates.”
Braden rubbed his hands together. “When you put it that way, it's almost providential.”
Jeremy leaned forward. “Easy, Brae, this is a serious matter.” Always the voice of reason, he turned to Ash. “You do realize what you'll be taking on? Every proud mother from Mayfair to Bath will be beating down our doors, snapping at our heels at every turn.”
Ash nodded. “I do indeed, and in fact, I would expect no less.”
Michael sat back. “Ash, old man, I swear, it sounds like you almost welcome the contest.”
“Of course I don't welcome it, but the gauntlet has been thrown down and I will not waver.”
“What is it you really want, Ash?” Jeremy asked.
Ash considered his words. “My life. My freedom. All that any man wants, of course. A rational, obedient, levelheaded female who won't be clinging on my sleeve and who knows her place in society. In short, if I'm to be leg-shackled to a wife, then it shall be to the woman of my choice. One who will allow me to manage my life as I please.”
Michael laughed. “And you think such a creature exists?”
“I'm counting on it.”