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The Duke's Wager: Defiant Brides Book 1 by Jennifer Monroe (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Sarah Crombly gazed out the window and out upon the property of her family home, Greystone Estate. From this vantage point she could typically view the many different colored flowers, the green grass, and the numerous paths one could select when taking a stroll. Though, at this moment she could not, for it was nighttime and she had been busy greeting guests for over the past hour. For a moment, she imagined it was daytime and she was out for a walk, her thoughts and dreams guiding her every step in an attempt to take her away from the noise of the dozens of people who filled the ballroom behind her. She found it easy to ignore the hum of people talking, dancing, and drinking when her dreams took over in her mind.

The previous night she had finished reading the latest novel about a woman who sat locked away in a tower by an evil queen who was jealous of her beauty. A prince came, one who had traveled far and wide, fought great dragons, and slew a massive giant, all to find the woman who would win his heart. A smile came to her face, and she wished that she, too, could be like that fair maiden, and that perhaps a prince would come upon horseback, or disembark from a grand ship, to whisk her away to his castle and into his arms forever.

“Sarah,” her father said from behind her, breaking her from her thoughts. Sir Thomas Crombly was a merchant who spent quite a bit of his growing fortune hosting events such as the one this night, hoping to garner more acceptance from the titled community. Because his gatherings were such that they rivaled those of the ton, and despite their upturned noses and whispered comments behind his back, many of the ton accepted his invitations, much to his elation.

Next to her father stood a gentleman perhaps no older than she, that of one and twenty. His dark jacket was impeccable, the white ruffles of his shirt seeming to be parted just so, no doubt made from the finest threads available to the English wealthy class. The man was handsome in the conventional sense, though his nose was a tad on the large size. His sky-blue eyes did not leave her face when he gave a slight nod of his head as her father introduced him.

“Lord Alexander Bancroft,” her father said, then gave Sarah what she had deemed the look of expectation.

While most of her friends had already been married off, Sarah had been taking her time, refusing numerous proposals. Both her father and mother had spoken to her of this travesty many a times, and now with the look from her father, she forced a smile and readied herself to play her role of eligible maiden. In a way she felt sorry for Lord Bancroft, for she knew immediately he would never be her hero, so the time taken away from his busy schedule to meet her would be time wasted.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” she said in an overly sweet voice, her head giving the slightest of nods. She glanced at her father for his approval, and seeing his eyes narrow, she extended her hand, causing the frown to turn into a smile.

“As with you,” Lord Bancroft replied, taking her hand in his own. “Surely your father’s greatest treasures he keeps to himself.” He dipped his head and brought his lips to brush the top of her hand. Sarah had many lips brush her hand over the evening thus far, most of them quite displeasing. Though the lips on her hand at this moment were acceptable, they certainly were nowhere near the worst. A man not even an hour earlier had pressed his lips at the same time a bead of sweat fell from his forehead to her hand, causing her to almost shriek in disgust. Yet, those of Lord Bancroft still fell short of what she had come to expect. It was not as if all that many men had kissed her hand in her life thus far, but she knew from the stories she read, the moment would be magical.

Her father clapped Lord Bancroft on the back. “Come now, let us have a brandy and discuss this wool merchant of whom you spoke,” he said. A heartbeat later the two walked off, and Sarah let out a sigh of relief. How she despised these social expectations. However, her father was always looking for a way to expand his business and made connections with anyone who could be of help in that area. He had worked hard all his life, and it was demonstrated in how much their wealth grew greater each year.

Sarah allowed her eyes to roam over the ballroom. The length was perhaps one hundred people long and the same wide. Paintings her father had procured in both London and Edinburgh hung from the walls, the canvases each touched by a different artist. She had to admit that the room was indeed lovely with its gold-flowered panels and dark oak columns polished to a bright gleam. Two large chandeliers hung over the crowd, casting their light down upon the couples as they walked their paces, bowing and curtsying in time with the music.

Her mind began to wander, as it was wont to do, and she imagined her prince, his face obscured by the cloak that covered his head, walking toward her. The imaginary man would reach out his hand to her and she would giggle demurely before taking his hand and walking out to join the dancers. The music that played in these daydreams was always a waltz—though that type of dance was generally frowned upon—they would do it anyway so they would be able to whisper words of love to each other as they danced.

“You are the most beautiful woman here,” he would say as he carried her across the floor.

She would blush demurely and then say, “Well, you are most certainly a pirate.” Then she would giggle at his broad smile. How she could see him smile, she was never sure, but it would be there nonetheless.

“How did you know I am a pirate?” he would ask.

“Because only a pirate could be as handsome as you and sweep me off my feet in such a reckless manner.”

Someone jostled Sarah’s arm and she came back to the present with her arms outstretched as if dancing. Several people nearby stood with either wide grins or looks of disapproval, and she dropped her arms and giggled. She cared not what these people thought, but she was certain her parents would, so she did what she could to disabuse them of any thoughts that she did not have all of her senses.

She sighed and returned to watching the guests. Those who were not participating in the waltz stood in small groups, partaking in drinks and conversation—many probably gossiping about those who had not come and even those who were across the room, perhaps some even gossiping about a woman who stands and pretends to dance with no one. The men wore their fancy tailcoats with ruffled shirts and breeches while the women donned the finest dresses London had to offer, all of the colors of the rainbow represented, as well as colors not found in rainbows.

White and gold seemed to be this season’s choice of gown color; though Sarah had never been one to follow trends. Her light-blue gown flowed around her slippered feet, bereft of the excess of bows many women preferred. And unlike most, her neckline was modest. Even as the trend, Sarah found the necessity to expose one’s décolletage to where almost her entire bosom could be seen was near nudity. It was not that she was a prude, far from it; however, she did not want to be remembered by the men for her bosom.

Besides Alexander, she had been introduced to no less than a dozen men this evening, and by night’s end it would not surprise her to meet a dozen more. She was supposed to marry one of them, or at least someone of their stature. It was expected, a barbaric custom in which she had no choice but to partake. She would rather wait for her champion to come, to sweep her away on a grand adventure and see the world. The books she had read told tales of love, and though she had not experienced it, Sarah could not wait for that day to come to her.

“I must say, you bring shame upon us all standing by yourself,” her mother said.

Sarah stifled an exaggerated sigh. “Mother, I am sorry. Forgive me this once, I beg of you.” She was unable to keep the caustic tone from her voice, however.

Her mother’s blue eyes bore into her. “There is no need for such defiance, Sarah,” she hissed between the clenched teeth of her set smile. “Now, come with me and entertain our guests.” She walked away without waiting to see if Sarah would follow, but Sarah knew there was little choice, so she did as her mother asked.

A loud laugh came to her ears and looking over, Sarah saw her father, Lord Bancroft, and several other men raise their glasses and then take a drink. Their faces were red and their smiles wide. What an easy life the men had—having drinks, making their own decisions in their lives, and counting their money, while she was made to wear ten layers of clothing and force a smile for every person she encountered. Perhaps the farm hand, Mildred, had the right idea in life. She had spent many an hour listening to the woman’s stories about her life and envied her the chance to travel and live as she chose. Though, if Sarah was honest, she had to admit that the thought of hard labor made her feel a bit nauseous.

“Your best behavior this evening is paramount to us all,” her mother’s stern voice broke into her thoughts. “Somewhere in this crowd could be your husband. Just think of the children you will produce.” She said the last in a dreamy fashion as if the thought brought on a feeling of some sort of euphoria.

“I will behave,” Sarah promised, though she did not want to. The idle chitchat, the forced pleasantries, the offering of her hand so lips could press against it, all of it was mundane. She had selected a book from the family library earlier and would rather be in her bed at this moment enjoying it than pretending she actually cared what these people thought of her.

For some time, Sarah went through the custom of introductions, meeting both men and women. Some she had known since childhood while others were newly acquainted, their names and faces forgotten as soon as they were no longer in front of her. She hoped the event would end soon; the knight was frozen in time inside her novel upstairs at this very moment in her room, ready to sweep the fair maiden off her feet.

They stopped in a vacant area in front of a wide fern, and all Sarah wished was to be able to hide behind it until everyone was gone.

“Now, tell me,” her mother said through that fixed smile, “was that as cumbersome as you made it out to be?”

“No, Mother,” Sarah said, playing the part of the dutiful daughter. “It was nice to see so many friends.”

Her mother’s smile became genuine as she heard Sarah’s words, her eyes shining, and Sarah felt a pang of remorse for her flippant behavior toward the woman. Her mother was beautiful and was looking forward to the day Sarah was wed, for she often told her as such. Sarah was an only child, her mother unable to conceive more children after Sarah was born, something Sarah knew had plagued her mother daily. There were times Sarah would walk by the drawing room and see her mother gazing out the window onto the grounds below, much like Sarah did. But her mother’s eye would have a tear upon it, and the sight always broke Sarah's heart.

Sarah knew the day would come when she would marry. And though it might not make Sarah happy, if it pleased her mother and stopped her pain, it would be a worthy sacrifice. Much like the many her mother had made in her life for her family.

“I am parched,” her mother said as she glanced around the room, more than likely looking for a servant with a tray of drinks. “Wait here while I get a drink for us both.”

Sarah smiled with a nod. Her mother weaved between people, the flow of her dress like her movements—graceful.

“Beauty is such a rarity,” a male voice said from behind her. “Yet, you and your mother both have it. Good fortune indeed has graced the house of Greystone.”

A man with dark hair and eyes as brown as chestnuts stood before her, his nose slender and slightly upturned on the end. His face was handsome, the jaw strong yet not protruding as some of the men might have. But there was something about him that Sarah found familiar, though she could not place it. Whoever he was at this moment did not matter, however. What in fact did concern Sarah was the beat of her heart, which had quickened, for what reason she was not sure, and as she went to speak, she found her throat slightly constricted, her mouth suddenly dry.

“I…sir, do I know you?” Sarah asked, forcing the words out and trying to find her breath once again.

The man smiled as he clasped his hands behind him. “You do,” came the man’s reply. “Though it has been eight years gone since we last saw each other.” A smile came to his face, and Sarah almost fell back when she realized who the handsome man was.

“James Foxworth,” they both said in unison. The man before her was far different than the boy she had remembered as a child. Her mind immediately returned to that late afternoon when he had pulled her hair and stepped on the rose she had offered him as a gesture of the love she thought she had for him. For years, she had felt herself lucky for having found out who he really was before she gave her heart to him, but now, seeing him before her, she began to doubt that decision. She struggled to control her heart, but it was imperative she do so, and as soon as possible, lest she faint right there and then from lack of air.

He laughed, the sound charming and causing Sarah to reach her hand out in an attempt to balance herself. His hand came to her arm, gentle yet firm. “Are you well?” he asked with concern. “Do you need to sit?”

“I am quite well, thank you,” Sarah replied, her voice defiant as she pulled her arm away. She had no business acting like this with James Foxworth of all people. “It has been unusually hot weather, and with so many people in one room, I am finding myself a bit overly warm.” She knew his act of chivalry was in fact just that—an act. He was beyond the age of pulling her hair in public but she did not put it pass the scoundrel to try something else to cause her pain. No man changed so much in eight years to be worthy of her affections as far as she was concerned.

“Indeed, it has been warm, but English warm is such a welcome encounter. I have just returned from India a fortnight ago. The heat there is crushing, much more so than anything I have ever experienced in England.”

Sarah forced a smile, then glanced over to see her mother engaged in conversation. Of all the times she wished her mother away during nights like these, she needed her there with her now. Then perhaps Sarah could easily bow out of the necessity of speaking to the man.

“You are accustomed to crushing things, are you not?” Sarah said through a fixed smile. To an outsider who could not hear the words she spoke it would seem she was exchanging pleasantries with the handsome gentleman, perhaps even enjoying his company. “Like the flower of a young girl?” She wanted him to know she had not forgotten his cruelty the last time they had been together.

He nodded sadly. “That young boy was a fool, his actions that day not only reprehensible but near unforgivable. I must humbly ask you to consider forgiving me.” The familiar smile was back, and she wanted nothing more than to slap it off his ignorant face.

Tears stung her eyes as she recalled that same smile eight summers ago when his foot stepped on her precious flower, that symbol of her affections for him, and destroyed it beneath his shoe. Handsome or not, some acts of cruelty could not be forgiven. With relief, she saw her mother approaching and then turning back to him, spoke softly enough so only he could hear. “I care not for your vain apologies, James. Your act that day so long ago was as barbaric as the ancient men about whom I have read.” She went to turn and stomp off to show her anger but ran headlong into her mother.

“Oh, is that…?” her mother began to say, before James cut her off with a nod of his head.

“Mrs. Crombly, once again you have opened your beautiful home to me, and I am forever grateful.”

Sarah bit down on her lip. Handsome and well-spoken he might be, but he drove her mad.

For a few moments, the two engaged in conversation, her mother asking questions about his time in India, but Sarah ignored them both. Instead, her eyes looked over his well-tailored coat and moved down to his tight breeches. Her breath soon became uneven again despite all attempts to keep it controlled. She found it difficult to care what he said about India, for it was much too hot in here.

James pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at it. Then he closed it with a snap, bringing Sarah back to the conversation at hand. “I will leave you two ladies to enjoy the evening,” he said. Sarah raised her hand to move a stray strand of hair that had escaped her chignon, but the ever-sly fox James grabbed it and pressed his lips to it. “Till we meet again,” he said with a smile. A moment later he walked up to Lord and Lady Bellows and was soon in conversation with the couple, although he sneaked a glance over in Sarah’s direction.

“Oh, what a perfect couple you two would make,” her mother said with excitement. “Can you imagine, Sarah? And the children! How beautiful they would be.” Again, her voice became dreamy and—to Sarah’s mind—unbearable.

James walked away from the Bellows moments later and was soon lost in the crowd. She and that man together? Her parents would have to threaten her with a flogging before she would agree to such an arrangement. The only thing she could imagine was paying him back for his dastardly deeds all those years ago.

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