If ever a woman deserved to be shot, it was Miss Crenshaw. But dawn appointments weren’t meant for the weaker sex. Weaker sex. The lady was anything but weak, which is why Erroll intended to throttle her.
Erroll laid a shilling in the innkeeper’s palm. “You understand the need for discretion.”
“Indeed, I do, my lord,” the man replied. “Your betrothed’s reputation is safe with me.”
Erroll managed to maintain a bland expression as the innkeeper handed him the key to the lady’s room. So news of his impending nuptials had sped from Coventry to Manchester even quicker than he had—which meant London society would hear the news by morning light and the story would cross the border to Edinburgh just as quickly.
Which of the gossipmongers had he to thank for that? He was grateful to the heavenly powers that his mother had remained in Scotland and not accompanied his father to England this month. God help him if she got wind of this entanglement before he had a chance to extricate himself from the tenacious claw of the husband-hunting wench.
“A beautiful woman is hard to resist,” the innkeeper said.
“Indeed,” Erroll murmured, glad the man had interrupted the mental picture of his mother outfitting the deceitful huntress in her wedding dress. No bachelor’s mother was more determined to see her son wed than Erroll’s own dear mamma, and since his return from the navy, his father had put his considerable weight behind her efforts.
He whirled toward the stairs, climbed to the second floor and made a left down the hall. At the third door on the left, he stopped. Erroll had endured his father’s hour-long diatribe that ended with the command to marry the woman who had accused him of compromising her—a woman he’d never laid eyes on—before he finally broke away to discover his accuser had fled Coventry. The hard five hour ride to catch her before she reached her father’s estate would have been in vain if not for the fact a wheel on her carriage broke forty miles distance from Manchester.
This experience would teach him to dally with the women outside of London. Had he satisfied himself with the eligible ladies in Town—if those females could be called ladies—he wouldn’t have gone to Coventry and attended the damn house party that had gotten him into trouble. The fact he’d spent a pleasurable hour with a lady in the hostess’ gardens had only served to put him in the very place his accuser said he’d been. Erroll felt sure the cunning creature was well aware he’d been in the gardens, and therefore claimed to be the object of his attentions.
Erroll quietly unlocked the door, slipped into the darkened room, then eased the door shut and slipped the key into his pocket. Faint moonlight filtered in through thin curtains and outlined the sleeping figure in the bed. Erroll crept forward until he reached the bed. He braced a knee against the side of the mattress, then placed a hand on each side of the woman and brought his face to within an inch of hers.
She shifted in her sleep and lush breasts grazed his chest. He wondered how long it would be before she became aware a man was in her bed, then concluded that since she hadn’t awoken with a shriek she must be accustomed to having a man in her bed. He should ravish her as she’d said he had just for good measure. The thought froze at the pressure of a pistol jammed against his abdomen.
“I am a crack shot.” The feminine voice was steady—as was the hand holding the gun. “But even the worst shot in Great Britain couldn’t miss.” The gun dug deeper into his belly. “Move away.”
Erroll considered. Her calm response to his presence almost made him think she’d expected him. “If I’m to be shot, I should at least commit the crime for which I’m accused.” The click of the pistol’s hammer being pulled back was his answer. “I see you do not agree.” He straightened off the bed.
“Step back,” she ordered.
He retreated two paces.
He moved back another two paces.
“I promise you, sir, my aim is as true at such short a distance as it was when you were an inch from my face. Back against the door.”
Erroll complied. A light click indicated she had released the hammer back into place. She rose, a small figure in the shadows, and picked up something from the night table. The clink of glass was followed by the scrape of a match on wood, then light flared and he got his first look at the woman who claimed he had ravished away her innocence. Dark brown eyes pinned him with a hard stare. Honey-brown hair tumbled down her shoulders. The top of her head was no higher than his chest.
The muff pistol remained pointed at him as her attention shifted to the lamp on the nightstand. She bent slightly and her full breasts strained against the nightgown as she lit the wick. His cock jerked and he couldn’t deny his good fortune in not having met her at Lady Baldwin’s party. He very well might have fallen prey to her charms and been guilty of her accusations.
She blew out the match and tossed it onto a metal tray, then took a step toward him. The lamplight illuminated the outline of her body through the nightgown. The curves he discerned were fuller than were fashionable and the kind he’d sought without success. His cock began to lift. He might end up shot after all.
“You are no common housebreaker,” she said. “Who are you?”
Erroll’s mind snapped to attention. The wench didn’t recognize him. Fury doused his lust. He gave a mocking smile and bowed. “Lord Erroll Rushton, at your service.”
Shock registered on her face, then an answering fire appeared in her eyes. “I see we shall have to break you of the habit of entering a lady’s room uninvited.”
“You use the term lady too loosely.”
“That is the pot calling the kettle black.”
He nearly laughed.
“One would think a prospective groom could keep his cock in his pants with his wedding but two days hence,” she said.
“Three days,” Erroll corrected. That was how long it would take him to get the special license his father ordered him to procure. “Pray tell, what sort of lady carries a gun?” He didn’t ask what lady used the word ‘cock’ as easily as the word ‘groom?’ That was perhaps too obvious.
“The sort who knows what to expect of a man,” she replied.
“The very sort who understands a man might object to being forced into marriage?” he said.
She gave a derisive laugh. “You are a rakehell, sir.”
“I never denied being a rake, madam, but I am no liar.”
She wasn't what he’d expected. He’d been told this was to be her second season, but this woman was no debutante and, given the way she unabashedly stood before him in her nightclothes, he would wager she was no virgin.
“Surely, you’re a little old for this game?” he drawled.
Her brow knit, but he detected no shame. She was too collected. But a level head—along with a liberal dose of nerve—is exactly what it took to accuse a complete stranger of compromising her.
“Did you really think you could get away with it?” she asked.
The question startled him.
“Now who is the pot calling the kettle black?” he said. She shifted and Erroll could have sworn he discerned a dark patch between her legs. “A shame we met under these circumstances.” He flicked a glance at her breasts. “We could have been friends.”
Her mouth thinned. “By God, I really should shoot you.”
“Tut tut, love, not until the vows are said and I claim what is left of your virtue.”
She drew in a sharp breath.
“Your righteous anger is completely undone by the fact that you’re nearly naked.”
Her mouth twisted in a derisive smile. “Forgive me, my lord. Had I known you were coming, I would have dressed for the occasion.”
“You are impeccably dressed for the occasion.”
Did she have any idea how visible the contours of her body were with the lamplight behind her…or how her nipples pressed against her nightgown? She shifted, widening her stance slightly and his cock jerked harder. Oh yes, the witch knew.
“I should send you to hell this instant,” she said.
He lifted a brow. “The marriage vows will take care of that—had I any intentions of marrying.”
“My father will ensure that you do not escape this time.”
“That sounds as though you think I am getting what I deserve.”
“You do not deserve such a good and innocent wife.”
Erroll laughed. “Innocent? A woman who puts herself in such a position is no innocent.”
“How dare you?” she hissed.
“How dare I? I understand there were several suitors for the honorable Miss Crenshaw’s attentions at Lady Baldwin’s party. I wager none of them were as good a prospect as I, which is why you gambled that no one would notice if I was included on that list.”
He didn’t miss the way her fingers flexed on the gun.
“Everything I’ve heard about you is true,” she said. “You have no conscience.”
“In that we are alike. Should my father succeed in coercing me into marriage, I will make the worst sort of husband you can imagine. I will not settle down and sire an heir as he expects. Instead, I will send my wife to the family estate in Scotland while I go about my pleasures in London.”
“So the choice is desertion or ruination?”
“Be honest, the ruination was done long before you concocted this plan.”
“Plan?” she repeated. “I feel certain I can convince the magistrate of self-defense. After all, you broke into my room.”
“Think again.” Erroll reached into his pocket.
“Beware,” she said.
He slowly withdrew the key from his pocket and held it up. “The innkeeper was very obliging. He feels nothing should stand in the way of true love.”
She frowned, then comprehension cleared her expression. “I should have guessed. You think you can browbeat me into helping you avoid the marriage vows. You, sir, are the worst sort of knave.”
“So we do understand one another.”
“You are a fool,” she muttered.
He’d had enough. “You are the fool if you believe I will marry you.”
“Marry me? What—”
Erroll started toward her.
She took a faltering step backwards and he lunged. She gave a startled cry. He seized the hand holding the gun and shoved it upward in their tumble backwards. They landed on the bed, him on top of her. Her lush body yielded beneath his hard planes—his stiffening cock in particular. To his surprise, she didn’t struggle, but released the pistol. The weapon bounced off the mattress and struck the carpet with a thud.
“Is this how you described my having ravished you?” he demanded.
Shock registered on her face. He blew out a frustrated breath. He’d come ready to battle the vixen and she was already crumbling. Moisture appeared in her eyes. Ah, there it was. She was simply moving onto another tactic.
“Lies, pistols, tears, and…” He moved suggestively against her breasts and felt the rigid nipples beneath his shirt. “Your arsenal of weapons is impressive, madam.”
“I tell you, mamma, I heard a scream.”
A woman’s voice penetrated the door on the right wall. Erroll jerked his gaze in that direction as the door swung open. Two women stood in the doorway staring, one young—in her second season, he would guess—the other, the mamma the girl had addressed.
Erroll looked at the woman lying beneath him. “I thought that was a closet.”
Panic streaked through Eve and she struggled to push Lord Rushton off her, but he continued to stare in shock as her mother fainted dead away.
Her sister’s wail split the deadly silence. “He is mine!”
The earl looked at Eve, a strange sense of understanding in his eyes. “She’s Miss Crenshaw?”
Eve wasn’t sure if his confusion was due to the fact he’d accosted the wrong woman, or that the woman he was supposed to have compromised was beautiful enough to rival Aphrodite. He wouldn’t be the first man struck dumb at first sight of Grace.
“He’s mine!” This time Grace’s wail became a banshee cry.
She hurled herself at them and landed on the earl’s back with a force that seemed impossible given her small stature. Eve winced when his hardened shaft dug into her pelvis. He grunted and she fleetingly wondered if it was Grace’s weight landing on top of him or the fact that even a steel rod could be crushed by the force of such an assault. It would serve him right if he never sired an heir.
Eve caught sight of his jaw tightening and realized he’d broken from the spell. Grace seized his head and shoved. His face mashed into Eve’s breasts. Her breath caught and she clutched at his shoulders. Muscle bunched beneath her fingers as he tried to push upward in unison with her shove, but Grace was like a rogue elephant pounding them with all her weight and might. The hall door flew open and Eve glimpsed their father in the doorway.
Lord Rushton jerked his head in an obvious attempt to look up, but Grace shoved harder, slamming his head deeper into Eve’s soft flesh.
“What the bloody hell?” their father roared.
An instant later, the weight lifted. Eve vaguely understood her father had pulled Grace off them, then she suddenly felt light as a feather and realized the earl had shoved off of her. He whirled, swinging a large fist that cracked against her father’s jaw. Eve jumped from the bed and tripped. She hit the floor shoulder first. Pain radiated up her arm. Her father rammed a fist into the earl’s stomach. Lord Rushton stumbled back a step, but jerked straight and sent a hard jab to her father’s ribs.
“Stop!” she shouted, but the earl struck again.
Her father blocked the blow, but the younger man was too fast and pounded a fist into his stomach. Eve spotted the pistol lying on the carpet and grabbed it. She aimed and pulled the trigger.
For an instant, Erroll was sure the roar he’d heard wasn’t a pistol shot, and the pain that seared across his left calf wasn’t a bullet wound. A yank to his boot sent him sprawling onto his backside, with the pistol now inches from his face.
He looked at the woman who knelt beside him, pointing a gun at him for the second time that night, and said, “You used your one shot.”
She blinked in confusion, then dropped her arm and fell onto her rump beside him. “This, sir, is a prime example of why a man does not enter a lady’s bedroom uninvited.”
Erroll scanned the room. The mamma still lay on the floor where she’d fainted. The other lady stood, perfect breasts heaving beneath the white cotton of her nightgown, and green eyes blazing. The older man stood, hand braced against the wardrobe, drawing in deep breaths. And, glory be, the innkeeper and two maids stood in the doorway, mouths agape. His father would hear of this escapade before the doctor finished tending his gunshot wound.
Erroll looked at the lady. “For once, madam, I would have to agree.”
“Have you lost your mind?” Eve asked her sister for the dozenth time after their arrival home in Manchester early that morning.
Grace reclined beside her on the couch in the parlor. Their mother sat in a nearby chair, and the two sipped tea as serenely as if they entertained visitors on a Sunday afternoon. Eve couldn’t help a glance at the closed door. Her father and Lord Rushton had been sequestered in the study for over an hour. What could be taking so long?
Eve cast Grace a thin-lipped look. “How could you possibly think you would get away with such a lie?”
Grace gave a careless shrug. “He is a rake of the first order. The only thing stopping him from being guilty of the crime is opportunity.”
“For heaven’s sake, Grace, he hasn’t married a one of the women who claimed he compromised them. Why would he marry you, the daughter of a baron with no fortune to speak of—and sight unseen, no less?”
Grace’s eyes narrowed on her. “But if he were caught in bed with you he would have no choice but to marry you?”
“Grace,” their mother admonished.
Ire flared through Eve. “He mistook me for you.”
“No one could possibly mistake you for me.”
Before last night Eve would have agreed. Grace’s raven black hair and emerald green eyes alone separated them by miles. “He did,” Eve said. “All because he never laid eyes on you before today. My God, even a rakehell such as Lord Rushton doesn’t deserve to be trapped so deceitfully.”
“He will do well with me,” Grace replied. “I’ll give him an heir, then he will go about his business as any man in his position would.”
Eve eyed her sister critically “The perfect society wife?”
“And if his father won’t let him marry you?”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Grace asked.
“Don’t pretend ignorance,” Eve said. “You know full well we do not run in their circles. A man of his station will not marry a baron’s daughter.”
“That is ridiculous,” their mother said. “Grace is as good as any other girl—better, in fact.”
“That makes no difference, as you know well, Mother,” Eve said.
Grace waved a dismissive hand. “Just because that’s what happened to you, doesn’t mean it will happen to me.”
Eve should have felt pain at the reminder that the man she eloped with allowed himself to be paid off not to marry her—along with anger that Grace was so unfeeling as to point it out. But Eve had long ago come to terms with the nature of the man she had made the mistake of falling in love with.
“It is because it happened to me that I can speak with certainty,” Eve said. “I would not wish the same fate for you.”
“News already reached Manchester that we are to wed,” Grace said. “That means his father must have commanded him to marry me. Just as I planned.”
Despite her cavalier tone, Eve detected what she felt certain was a hint of doubt. Grace, even with her exceptional beauty, had no better chance of marrying into the circle in which Lord Rushton moved than did Eve. Had Grace captured the eye of an earl, their parents would have been ecstatic. But a very rich earl next in line as a marquess wasn’t something to have dared hope for. Grace, however, had obviously harbored hopes that such a family would overlook her lower birth.
“Grace,” Eve said more gently, “even if the marquess allowed it, you failed to take into account Lord Rushton’s nature. He told me that if he is forced to marry you, he will abandon you in Scotland while he goes about his pleasures as he always has.”
Eve shook her head. “Lord Rushton isn’t English. He will exile you to Scotland and no one could stop him. He isn’t the sort of man you are accustomed to.”
Grace laughed. “His mother is English, if you recall. I daresay, he is more English than Scottish. What do you know of men, anyway, Eve?”
“Enough to know this one will not give into your whims like other men.”
“Of course he will. I will make certain of it by giving him everything he wants.”
“Men want more than an heir from a wife.”
“For a time,” Grace agreed. “And he shall have it to his heart’s content.”
Eve gave a disgusted snort. “You’re a fool. He will take what he wants, then discard you as he has all the others—wife or not.”
“Girls,” their mother reprimanded, “you shouldn’t speak of such things. Your father will deal with the earl. Really, sneaking into a lady’s room in the middle of the night. What is this world coming to?”
Eve agreed, but couldn’t half blame him. She could only imagine her own desperation should she find herself trapped into marriage by a man she’d never met.
The door opened and their father entered with Lord Rushton behind. Eve noted that the earl favored his injured leg. His wrinkled coat and cravat bore testament to the hurried ride from the inn to Manchester. Guilt washed over her. The long ride couldn’t have helped his wound. She glimpsed the shadow of a bruise on her father’s jaw and the guilt vanished.
“Father,” Grace began.
“Not a word,” he cut her off.
“I warn you, Grace, be silent.”
“My lord,” their mother said in a horrified voice as Grace’s eyes widened.
Eve, too, was surprised. She couldn’t recall the last time her father had censured Grace for anything.
He halted a few feet from the couch and clasped his hands behind his back. Lord Rushton stopped beside him. The drawn look in the earl’s dark eyes startled Eve.
“Your actions—both your actions—leave me in a quandary,” her father said.
Eve snapped her gaze onto him. “I suppose I should allow a man who breaks into my room to have his way with me?”
He gave her a thin-lipped scowl. “What you should do is not sleep with a pistol under your pillow. But you have no more need of a gun. Lord Rushton will obtain a special license and the wedding will take place three days hence.”
The earl’s startled gaze jerked onto her father—then his glare turned onto her.
She flashed a sweet smile. “You should have left well enough alone, my lord. Grace’s deception would have come to light. As it is, you sealed your fate.” If his father agreed, of which she had her doubts.
“Indeed, he has,” her father said. “As have you. Eve, you will marry Lord Rushton.”
Shock rolled across her.
Lord Rushton lifted a brow. “Not so smug now, are we, madam?”
“This is wrong,” Grace cried. “He is to marry me!”
Her father turned his narrow-eyed stare onto her. “Madam, your actions in this matter are reprehensible. I have yet to decide how to deal with you, but I warn you, commit any further mischief, and I will send you to a convent.” Eve gasped along with Grace and their mother, but he ignored them and said to the earl. “Three witnesses saw you lying on top of my eldest daughter—in her bed.” The deadly chill in her father’s voice sent a shiver of apprehension down her spine. “By now, they have alerted all of England that you compromised another Crenshaw woman in the worst way possible.”
“I have no doubt you are correct,” the earl said.
“But Lord Rushton didn’t compromise either of us.” Eve’s head spun. It never occurred to her that she was in danger of a forced marriage.
“He compromised you by entering your bedchambers,” her father said. “The fact he obtained the key from the innkeeper is enough to ruin you beyond redemption.”
“Lord Rushton’s father is unlikely to take that into consideration,” she blurted. “The marquess must have his sights set on a daughter-in-law of a more elevated position than mine.”
Her father shifted his attention to Lord Rushton. “As to that, thwart me and I will have my father contact your father. He may be a mere viscount, but he holds some sway as a member of the House of Lords.”
Tension cut like a knife. Eve had never heard her father threaten to use her grandfather’s influence. The viscount had surprised everyone by continuing to live despite his advanced age of eighty-four years. So her father, at age fifty-five, had yet to inherit the title.
“If these inducements are not enough,” he went on, “I shall dismember you.”
Lord Rushton kept his gaze locked with his. “I was under the impression you didn’t hold me responsible for last night’s…unfortunate events, and thought your daughter and I could perhaps spend time together in the country before the marriage.”
A hard glint shone in her father’s eyes. “Only a fool would tell himself he wasn’t responsible.”
“I am no fool.”
Her father gave a nod. “I did not think so.”
And I will not marry him, Eve privately added. Even if it means shooting higher than his leg.