London, July 1784
I can do this.
Randall turned the phaeton into Hyde Park, then looked at Prudence. She was lovely—no, she was beautiful. Raven hair, flashing chocolate eyes, and ebony eyelashes that defied the late-afternoon sun. Include a petite frame and creamy, pale skin that had probably never been forced to suffer sunshine—even now her face was shaded by a beribboned hat—and that equaled beauty. Add in her wicked wit, and he thought he really could marry the chit. And be, if not happy, at least content with the fact he had followed the correct path.
He teased his favorite pair of bays into a smart trot along the packed-dirt lane, settling behind a landau carrying a smartly dressed couple and two red-haired boys, twins, perhaps. He waved back at the boys and enjoyed Prudence’s seamless, sarcastic commentary. Her drollness was more than likely the reason she was still unwed at five and twenty, even being the daughter of an earl. But that suited Randall just fine. He loved a sharp, acerbic mind.
Yes, they would do nicely together.
“…and then, when my aunt careened down the bank, she knocked down two footmen and a speckled hound. I told her the whole scene resembled a game of bowls, and I suggested we all roll down the hill and try to knock down glass bottles; I was only ten at the time. All of us siblings and cousins spent the rest of the day getting grass stains on our best Sunday clothes. But Aunt Celia stopped crying and actually did a few more tumbles down the hill herself.” The perfect light tinkling of laughter came from perfectly tinted lips, with perfect timing.
An elderly matron, riding in the back of another landau, smiled approvingly at them. Randall’s chest swelled. Yes, Prudence would make him a first-rate viscountess. His aunt had made an excellent recommendation for a wife.
He could do this. Yes, he could.
“Oh, Lord Blair. Look.” She pointed toward the crowded park, where dozens of strolling and riding London denizens enjoyed the waning rays of sunshine. “My brother, David.” She turned and looked at him with a radiance he’d never seen in her always perfectly contained features. She was so beautiful at that moment, he almost thought he could love this one woman. Almost.
“He is my favorite sibling but has been away oh so long.” She half stood and waved at a dark young man dressed in a naval officer’s uniform and riding a smart-looking dappled gray. The young man reined in to trot toward them. Firm, fine thighs controlled the spirited horse while posting. Magnificent.
Randall swallowed his lust. It would not do to admire men any longer. He was to marry soon. He would simply have to change his tastes.
Prudence gave a little squeal. She actually squealed with excitement as her brother stopped his horse and reached over to take her hand to his lips.
He almost laughed at her unexpected giddiness, but then the brother raised his head and pinned him with a glare and… Bloody hell. No!
Perfect features, so like his sister’s—raven hair, flashing gunmetal-black eyes with lashes too long to believe, angry winged brows, and the only evidence this man was human and not some fallen angel was a slight spattering of freckles across the skin of his straight, flawless nose. Skin he remembered tasting. Warm and salty.
All the blood fled from his face for lower regions.
Slight musk that grew stronger the closer his lips had come to… Oh God! Bloody hell. I had Prudence’s brother.
Bloody damn hell. I had my cock up Prudence’s brother’s arse.
More than once!
Hands shaking, sweat beading between shoulder blades and running down his back, his vision of smooth, young, naked skin turned away from an ideal week five years ago and back to harsh reality…to judgmental eyes, the exact shape as Prudence’s. He should have known. No wonder he thought she was beautiful—she looked so much like her brother. A brother he at one time had been half in love with.
He closed his eyes, unable to bear the condemnation from a face he remembered in the throes of passion—mouth open, sighs and moans issuing from perfect lips. And between the times of passion, a wicked wit.
He should have known.
He was doomed.
He could not force air into burning, constricted lungs.
His surroundings dimmed.
The phaeton surged forward. Prudence screamed.
Just as quickly, the bay horses stopped, tossing their heads and snorting. David had one lead.
“Release the reins, Lord Blair.” Snapped out like an enemy flag on an angry wind. “Let…the reins…drop!”
Randall pried his numb fingers away from the tortured leather and felt his future plans die with each extracted digit. He took shallow breaths, trying to feed air-starved lungs. What would David do? What did he want? He knew everything, for God’s sake.
He had fucked the man.
Groaning, a torturous sound, he raked his hands over his face. The abrasive pull did not help his composure. This cannot be happening.
“My lord, are you unwell?”
He nodded at her concern, thought better of it, then shook his head instead.
David smoothly tied off the reins and set the brake before Randall had his breathing under control. “A word with you, sir. You placed my sister’s life in danger, and I intend to give you a bit of my mind.”
“Oh, David, no. Lord Blair is very competent and has never before put me in danger, and I am sure…”
Snapping ebony eyes stilled her attempt at rescue. Randall was doomed, his future in ruins. He scrubbed his face again, resetting his features, hoping to calm chaotic emotions as well. “He is quite right, my lady. We will be but a moment, I’m sure. And a gentle set-down will likely do my humility good.”
“Oh, David, don’t.”
David raised a hand, and it carried as much command as Ol’ George himself.
Randall slid from the seat and followed two broad and very stiff shoulders. Shoulders he had last seen leaving his bed for an appointment with some solicitor or other. Shoulders on the man who had not, as promised, returned.
They reached a secluded spot under a large, stately oak and were only thirty feet or so from the phaeton, but there was one thing he had to know and it could wait no longer. “David. You disappeared. I tried to find you. I feared—”
David spun on his heels, flinging words along with spittle. “What are your intentions for my sister?”
So much for sentimentality. He straightened his back and stood to his full, intimidating height, which was approximately four inches taller than his accuser. “I have asked her to be my wife, and she accepted. The family is excited, and the banns have been sent, if not yet read. The family is quite thrilled with this match, it would seem.”
David grabbed Randall’s cravat and tightened his grip, making further comment impossible.
“You will not
marry my sister, you bloody sodomite.”
He wiped moisture from his face and then applied a warning pressure to the long, elegant fingers cutting off his breath. The constricted cloth eased. “And who is calling me
a bloody sodomite, Midshipman David…Smith, was it?”
David let go and shook his head. At least he had the decency to look embarrassed about using a fake name five years ago, but his expression was no less murderous. “There is a difference in that I am not trying to force my unnatural proclivities on an unsuspecting lady. I will not let you ruin her life.”
“Ruin? She will be a viscountess. She and I get along smashingly. How will that—”
“And do you plan to fuck every young military man on leave? Break her heart? Give her nothing of yourself? Pass on some disease?”
Randall turned away from the accusation that hit a little too close to home. But the new perspective was just as disconcerting—instead of an irate protective brother, there was lovely Prudence leaning half off her perch, taking in everything. Fortunately, they were too far away for her to hear. He turned back to the irate brother.
“I will not let you destroy her with your unnatural appetites.”
“And what will you do to stop me? Call me out? Under what pretense, pray tell? That I’m queer? And what evidence will you use?” He chanced much when he leaned in and ran a finger down David’s smooth, freshly shaven cheek. “That you know firsthand since you enjoyed my cock in this pretty little mouth…” He ran his finger to David’s full wide lips. “And in your—”
David flung off the offending caress. “You son of a… I will not let you do this. There is no way you can make her happy.”
“She seems quite happy to have me as husband. Likes my fair hair, she says. Says we will make pretty babies. And maybe, with a little convincing, you and I could—” He knew he’d pushed too far. He expected the punch. However, he prepared for a facer. One short punch to the gut, a lightning bolt to his jaw, and the conversation was over.
The world spun for a few seconds.
“David!” Prudence yelled.
“Leave my sister alone. Tell everyone you made a mistake. That the two of you will not suit. I will console the family.”
Randall shook his head. Damn. David had grown into a fine, strong, sneaky bastard in the past five years. Pain throbbed in his ears as he rubbed his jaw. No blood, nothing broken. And fortunately, his stomach only received a glancing blow.
The swish of silk stopped Randall’s retort.
“Oh, my dear, sweet Lord Blair.” Featherlight touches assessed his wholeness. Then she glared at her brother. “David, what are you about? This is my betrothed. He did nothing untoward and does not deserve this treatment.”
Randall grinned over Prudence’s shoulder, knowing he had just gained martyr status.
David turned a sickly color of purple, then grabbed Prudence’s arm and dragged her, protesting all the way, to the phaeton and the gray tethered behind.
He let them go; it was almost worth having to walk back home, watching Prudence attempt to scramble out of the vehicle, and David repeatedly pulling her back in as he drove away.
Almost worth walking. He stopped to pry a stone out of his soft leather sole. Unfortunately, strolling would give him too much time to think, and his current disposition was more suited to February’s perpetual haze than today’s perfect sunny weather.
Yes, the walk would take too long, too long indeed. His thoughts turned to the flashing black eyes of the man who had lied, loved, and then disappeared.