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.
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.
on his way to this improbable place, he had ordered the carriage
turned around, and thrice he had turned it back.
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.
* * *
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.
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
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.
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.
hurt enough for her to say yes to Chesterfield’s proposal of
marriage, one year to the day, after Hawksworth died at Waterloo.
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
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.
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.
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.”
old adversary hissed and bared his teeth, like a hound after a bone.
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.
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?”
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.
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?”
then, Alex did not stir.
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.
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.
swallowed involuntarily, coughed, opened her eyes and swooned again.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
he detested the thought of imposing his scarred and savage self upon
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.
God, he wished things were different, that he was different,
whole, that they could go back to the simple and easy friendship
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.
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.
she had brought him back.
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.
the reminder, regret swamped him. Guilt. She would have fared better
no. No. If he had died, she would be condemned to a life with
Chesterfield, a fate Hawk could not conceive of, under any
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.
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.
only he were granted the miracle of time and strength to accomplish
should rest secure in her husband’s arms, blast it ... except
that she would not be his wife for much longer, Hawk reminded
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.
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.
she belonged to him for the moment, and since only he knew that
their marriage must end, this moment must be enough.
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.”
* * *
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.
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
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.
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.
death beckon then, finally, and would she feel as peaceful as she
had sometimes imagined?
Bryce be there waiting for her?
much as she wanted to give herself up to the promise of peace,
someone called to her.
“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.
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.”
smiled at the sound of his voice and slipped deeper into the place
where it dwelled.