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Annette Blair, NY Times & USA Today Bestseller

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unforgettable Rogue

The Rogues Club--2nd in the series

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

London, September, 1816

 

Bryceson Wakefield, the Fifth Duke of Hawksworth, stood at the mouth of hell—not on the field of battle, but in the vestibule of a church, gothic and empty of guests.

There, he saw from afar, his wife, a bride with her bridegroom standing before a priest ... and there, Hawk knew that living, again, just might kill him.

Thrice on his way to this improbable place, he had ordered the carriage turned around, and thrice he had turned it back.

Even now, he wanted to leave, rather than face Alexandra with the dreadful sight of him, scarred and battered by war, but her very presence drew him up that aisle like a beacon in a night-dark storm.

* * *

Smile, Alexandra Wakefield told herself, as she turned to face her bridegroom, her attention captured, instead, by the bearded derelict making his lone way up the aisle, the tap of his cane a desolate echo in the vaulted church.

His bearing, tall, sturdy and wide-shouldered, as he took the front pew, and the sharp, intense gaze he directed her way, sent a shiver of startled awareness through her. He made her think, absurdly, of her late husband—not the first time Bryce came to mind today—but the brooding stranger watching her, as if he might devour her, looked nothing like.

Bryceson Wakefield, the Fifth Duke of Hawksworth, a rogue by nature, swarthy, charming and handsome as sin, had enraptured every female who beheld him.

Alexandra had been no exception.

Beauty and his beast, some slyly called them, but Hawk had been the beauty. The day he asked for her hand in marriage had been the happiest of her life. Then she learned the real reason he married her, and it hurt.

It hurt enough for her to say yes to Chesterfield’s proposal of marriage, one year to the day, after Hawksworth died at Waterloo.

At the memory, a sob rose in Alex, until the Vicar cleared his throat, snapping her back to reality with a hot rush of embarrassment. “Do you, Alexandra Huntington Wakefield,” he was forced to repeat, “take Judson Edward Broderick, Viscount Chesterfield, as your lawfully wedded husband?”

Panic gripped Alex, grief, soul-deep, but she had no time to regard it, as the brooding stranger stood, his jaw rigidly set, and tapped his cane on the floor. “You will pardon the intrusion,” he said, his husky and familiar voice swamping her in a miasma of yesterdays. “But my wife must decline.”

“Bryce?” Alex cried, but no sound emerged from her throat, none save the sob that had been trapped there. Then the chapel’s ceiling tilted, and dipped, and kissed its floor.

Hawk hastened awkwardly to his wife’s side and ignored the agony of kneeling, aware that he would have the devil of a time rising again. But at this moment, he cared for nothing, no one, save Alexandra. “Give us a minute,” he enjoined the beleaguered Vicar, because warning her hovering bridegroom away, with even a veneer of civility, would be impossible.

“I object,” Chesterfield said, revoking the need for civility.

“What?” Hawksworth snapped. “You think I will abduct her from the altar? You would have no say if I did.”

His old adversary hissed and bared his teeth, like a hound after a bone.

“She is my wife,” Hawk said, as much to affirm his responsibility as to stake his claim. “Mine.”

“Gentlemen, remember where you are,” the Vicar admonished, as he took Chesterfield’s arm and urged him up and toward the sanctuary, nodding for the unknown groomsman to follow.

Hawk lifted and supported his wife’s head and shoulders, drinking in the sight of her like a man parched, shocked that the vision before him was not the hoyden he remembered. “Ah, my funny-faced minx,” he said, a rasp in his voice. “What were you thinking, while my back was turned, to go and blossom into a beauty, and to accept Chesterfield, of all people?”

Hawk had known for some time that Alexandra deserved better than a broken man like him, that for her own sake, he must set her free. But as he made his way up the aisle, he recognized her bridegroom and faltered in his resolve. Yes, he must seek an annulment as planned, but not just yet, for she also deserved better than the scoundrel standing beside her at the altar.

Hawk smoothed a curl from her brow. “You were such a discerning sprite; you cannot possibly love the knave.” Then again, she had married once without love, why not twice?

“Ragamuffin?” Hawk called, less in banter than in challenge, the old nickname certain to ruffle her feathers and bring her around. “I know I am scarred and changed,” he said. “But am I so horrid that you cannot bear to look upon the sight of me?”

Even then, Alex did not stir.

With a rush of panic, Hawk called for water, and almost as fast as he did, the Vicar appeared and offered a cup.

Chesterfield, two steps behind, knelt and reached for Alex’s hand.

“Do not,” Hawksworth snapped with the command of a man who led regiments, halting his wife’s accursed bridegroom like a hail of grapeshot. If only he had a weapon to hand now, Hawk thought as he placed the cup to his wife’s lips and tipped it upward.

She swallowed involuntarily, coughed, opened her eyes and swooned again.

Would she were overcome with joy, he mused facetiously as he stroked her cheek with the back of a hand, rather than frightened to death by the loathsome sight of him.

Hawk wanted to take Alex into his arms, stand and carry her as far from the cruelties of life as he could get her, except that he had become the ultimate cruelty. Besides, rising at all, without revealing his blatant and embarrassing weakness was a feat he had not yet mastered.

Without choice, but mortified all the same, Hawk gently returned his wife to the mercy of the cool marble floor. Then he stood in one resolute, pain-racked motion, no one, save him, aware of the cost to him in sheer willpower, or of the shout of anguish trapped behind his firmly-set lips.

Chesterfield impaled him with a look, fists clenched at his side, malice in both stance and expression.

“Sorry,” Hawk said. “I lived.” Though he repeatedly questioned his survival, when better men had died, true regret escaped him for the moment. “You may carry my wife to my carriage, or I shall have my man transport her. Either way, you will say your good-byes.”

To Hawk’s consternation, Alexandra’s lock-jawed suitor bent effortlessly to bundle her into his arms, rose as easily, and awaited further instructions.

Moments later, Hawk made his fraudulent, stiff-spined way down the aisle, repudiating pain, his concentration firmly fixed upon his wife, secure in her limber buck’s sturdy arms.

Other than his concern that Chesterfield might try to abscond with Alex, her crippled husband, unable to prevent it, Hawk found that he was almost glad of his bride’s near bigamy, for it compelled him, if only for a time, to join his life to hers, once more.

Still, he detested the thought of imposing his scarred and savage self upon her.

Once upon a time, he had conceived of a naïve anticipation to return to her, a goal that grew daily stronger, as did he, until he saw his scarred face in a mirror, attempted to walk, and realized he might never be a man, in every respect, again.

By God, he wished things were different, that he was different, whole, that they could go back to the simple and easy friendship between them.

He wished ... that he deserved her.

Selfishly, he wished that she had not changed. She used to be downright plain, but all his. Now she was beautiful. Breathtaking. And to whom she belonged was yet to be determined.

Her very presence infused him with the contentment of his youth, of their youth. Seeing Alex, again, uplifted him in an extraordinary, almost abstract, way. It brought him the same overwhelming joy that her calling him from the light had once done, when against all odds, the memory of her had brought him back to life.

When she had brought him back.

Either fate, or God, must have a sense of humor, Hawk mused. Of a certainty, they had switched places, he and Alex, for she was now one of the most beautiful women he had ever beheld. Exquisite. And him? Well, he had become beastlier than anyone could have imagined.

With the reminder, regret swamped him. Guilt. She would have fared better if—

But no. No. If he had died, she would be condemned to a life with Chesterfield, a fate Hawk could not conceive of, under any circumstances.

Look at the strutting, thick-skulled cockscomb, agile, capable, more comfortable in his strapping body than Hawk would ever be in this scarred and broken one. He wanted to beat the blackguard bloody just for existing, which was nothing to what he wanted to do to the cad for touching Alex, despite the fact that his robust assistance had been required, damn Chesterfield’s eyes.

As they approached the church’s thick, groaning, gothic doors, held open by an apprehensive Vicar, Hawk vowed that the day would soon come when he could carry Alex up a bloody mountain, if he pleased. Correction, if she pleased.

If only he were granted the miracle of time and strength to accomplish it.

A wife should rest secure in her husband’s arms, blast it ... except that she would not be his wife for much longer, Hawk reminded himself.

As if his agonizing walk down the aisle, with its sights and insights, were not enough, Hawk was forced to feign perfect agility, and endure perfect hell, once more, as he climbed into his waiting carriage beneath her stalwart swain’s vigilant gaze.

Then, reward came, for he took excessive satisfaction in accepting Alex in his arms, especially as she was being relinquished by the furious man with whom she had damned near replaced him.

Still, she belonged to him for the moment, and since only he knew that their marriage must end, this moment must be enough.

He found himself tempted, however, to rub salt in her ousted bridegroom’s wounds, just for sport. But his increasing concern over his wife’s inability to awaken, took precedence. “Alexandra?” Hawk tested her brow for fever, chafed a hand, pale as pearls, and brought it to his lips. “Ragamuffin, wake up.”

* * *

Alex floated in a sea of warmth, safe, secure, happy, an unusually blessed experience, since she rested comfortably in Bryce’s arms. But her singular dreamlike contentment began to trouble her. She remembered believing that Bryceson had, impossibly, returned from the dead. Then as in all dreams, everything shifted and she found herself carried in a death-grip by Judson for a long, long distance.

Voices had drifted above her, angry one minute, soft the next, hushing and admonishing, as well. She remembered a great deal of movement, hers—bouncing, jostling—and being held so tight, she could barely breathe.

As if, within the dream, her deepest, most private yearnings were being granted, Judson had handed her to Bryce, of all people. She became incredulous, then elated.

She loved being in her husband’s arms but hated facing Chesterfield with her guilty joy. She wished she could remain here, asleep, floating forever in whatever netherworld she existed.

Did death beckon then, finally, and would she feel as peaceful as she had sometimes imagined?

Would Bryce be there waiting for her?

As much as she wanted to give herself up to the promise of peace, someone called to her.

Alex shivered.

“Myerson, where did you put the lap rug?” That voice, again. Bryceson’s ... but impossible. Alex was exhilarated and frightened by the sound. It could not be real. ‘Twas not Lazarus, after all, she imagined hearing, but Bryceson Wakefield, Duke of Hawksworth, dead this last year and more.

She heard her own whimper as warmth covered her like a blanket, and she slipped blissfully back into that all-enveloping state of happy oblivion, there, in the only place where Bryceson’s arms could possibly remain around her.

“Myerson, Stephens Hotel, if you please. We will not be going on today, after all.”

Alex smiled at the sound of his voice and slipped deeper into the place where it dwelled.

 

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© Annette Lague Blair, Last website updates: 01/25/2014 04:17 PM