Ashford Blackburne, Fifth Earl of Blackburne, did not care where he
married and planted his seed, as long as he did both before Christmas,
when his tyrannical grandfather’s archaic ultimatum ran out.
Awash in the stale scent of incense, aware of a mortifying rigidity in
his spine, Ash fixed his gaze upon the claret marble altar before him,
and acknowledged, if only to himself, the unlikelihood of his bride’s
Given his first jilt six years before—due to his lack of funds—Ash
thought surely today’s bride would show, for he had paid her well to be
here. But her absence proved her as greedy and dishonest as the rest. An
actress of some talent—simply regard the way she’d taken his money and
run—she might have played the role of loving wife well enough to satisfy
even his grandfather’s skeptical eye.
Now he so obviously faced a second jilt that none but a strangled cough
dared pierce the weighty silence behind him, only to be trapped in the
gothic eaves, like a fluttering ribbon of echoes in an unending wave of
Ash glanced about, as if for
escape, and though his groomsman, Myles Quartermaine, seemed loath to
speak, the portly, plum-cheeked cleric stepped timidly forward. “My
Lord, I … do believe that your bride—” The parson plucked at his
strangling collar. “She must have—” He blotted his brow with a palsied
hand and opened his mouth like a fretful fish.
Ash cursed and sent the
vested craven scurrying from harm’s way like a crab before the tide
while the resonance of his expletive filled the rafters, and the craven
“Devil it, Ash,” Myles
whispered. “She has taken your money and run.”
Ash firmed his jaw. At this
moment, he’d rather fight another horde of bayonet-wielding Frenchies
than face any of his gossip-greedy guests. Nevertheless, he turned to
regard the vultures. “There will be no wedding today,” he said, and
before the surge of speculation broke, he’d stepped through the vestry
arch, twice-jilted and thrice as furious.
The warble-voiced vicar
barely offered a blessing before Ash cleared the north nave exit,
leaving Myles to the mercy of its ravening jaws.
As the two reached the front
of the huge steepled edifice, Hunter Elijah Wylder, Marquess of
Wyldborne, another battle-scarred rogue of the club, quitted the church
and fell into step beside them.
In a gesture of impotent
fury, Ash waved off his coachman and together the three strode down
Piccadilly and straight through the rotting portals of McAdams’s Pickled
Barrel Inn. There they always ended when dissipation came to mind, and
there they sat now to drink and forget the scandalbroth to come.
“McAdams,” Ash shouted. “Your
best whisky, and bring the bottle.”
“Bring three,” Myles said.
“Hell, roll the barrel over,”
Larkin McAdams had seen him
coming. Him—the man who’d filled her dreams since childhood, foolish,
wistful, impossible dreams, he who dominated them since he lifted her
from the floor, wiped her tears, kissed her scraped knuckles and called
her a brave little lady—the most handsome and forthright being ever
created: Ashford bloody-beautiful Blackburne.
If only he were not of the lowest and
most feeble-brained of God’s creatures … a man. Practical to a fault,
Lark sighed and admitted that for dreaming purposes, Ashford
Blackburne’s manliness did not seem so much a failing, as an advantage.
His male shortcomings paled in comparison to his masculine strengths, as
exhibited by her nightly fancies, in which he played a leading role.
Ashford—as she dared call him
in her mind—sat now in his favorite chair at his favorite corner table
from which he liked to survey the room at large. And she, on the far
side of the enclosed stair-wall behind him, sat on the bottom step, her
temple against the rough wall board, as near to him as she dared get
without being seen.
If she closed her eyes, she
could ignore the stench of ale and tobacco about her and remember the
special scent of him that day eleven years before, like the most exotic
of spices. And when she did recall it, a yearning for more than she
could ever have overtook her.
As always, she fought the
pull. Being so near the object of her fancies never failed to rush her
blood and pummel her heart with the kind of wild sentiment she hated,
yet at this moment, there existed no place on this earth she would
Her dissatisfaction with life
would pale with his departure, she knew, and reality would return,
however rude and unpleasant, though her yearnings never seemed to end.
Lark slid to the floor just
behind him and stretched her arm as far as she could reach, far enough
to touch the hem of his frockcoat, bold unworthy creature that she was,
and stroke its fine and fancy cloth between her callused fingers. Too
greedy by half and ignoring the risk such abandon wrought, she slid her
hand into his pocket, and out as fast, for nobody picked pockets better
than she, not even her Da.
She palmed a silver snuffbox
with curls that might be letters cut into it, a glove the color of
wheat, and a perfumed lady’s calling card. Lark’s jaw set at the sweet,
cloying scent of the card, but she brought Ash’s butter-soft kid glove
to her face, let the wash of his nearness shiver through her, and
forgave him. ‘Twas the spicy scent she remembered from that long-ago day
mixed with a strong touch of … lavender, as if he’d crushed a sprig in
his gloved hand.
Lark slipped the calling card
between the stair treads and watched it disappear from sight with utter
satisfaction. Ash was only a man, after all—human, weak, selfish and
self-serving, like the rest—but kinder than most, infinitely more
honorable, and much, much better on a poor maiden’s eyes.
Lark pushed the remainder of
her bounty into her trousers’ pockets and sat in the stairwell so long,
her legs cramped. The drinkers, Ash and his two cronies, at first rowdy,
then silent, then morose, in turn, called for three more bottles, then
For a while dust motes danced
in the slant of daylight piercing the grimy bay window near Lark’s
perch, then the light changed direction, lost its brilliance, and
Ash stopped swilling whisky
long enough to belch and grin, and Lark was glad he was coming out of
his sulks. Something must have gone terribly wrong, for Ashford
Blackburne could be a rogue of a charmer when the world went his way.
The friend he called Myles
caught his mood, winked, and slapped him on the back. “You’re running
out of time to get you a bride, old boy.”
Ash clutched his friend’s
neck cloth and pulled him strangling close. “No bloody fooling,” Ash
said with another belch and another charming grin.
“God’s teeth,” Myles said,
pulling from Ash’s hold and loosening his neck cloth. “If you
cannot persuade someone to marry you—”
Ash growled at that and Myles
reared from harm’s way. “I meant … what the bloody chance do I
have, I’d like to know?”
“Not a chance in Hades,” said the
third rogue—Hunter, Ash called him—his whiskey-induced grin rather
endearing, if also a danger to the female population. “Though I do think
your grandfather’s ultimatum is rather absurd, not to mention,
damned-near impossible to achieve. At this rate, you’ll never inherit.”
“Stubble it, Hunter,” Myles said to
both the personal slight to himself, and the discouraging commentary on
Ash’s dubious future.
Hunter shrugged and returned his
attention to Ash. “Devilish bit of bad luck, there, getting yourself
Again? Larkin sat straighter, ignoring
their banter as it escalated toward disagreement. Jilted? Ashford
Blackburne had been left at the altar? More than once?
Were society women daft?
“Does the first count as a
real jilt?” Hunter, with his whiskey-grin, put in. “You ran off to fight
Boney without a word, after all, and Ellenora was desperate to marry; we
all knew that. She could hardly be expected to wait and see if you would
survive. Ames was a Duke with a fortune as big as hers, so she would
Ash leaned over the table,
fisted a quick hand, and knocked the sot of a speaker on his arse.
“Thank you for the patronizing reminder, but she took the man too bloody
fast, if you ask me. She did not even wait two months and that I cannot
forgive. Fact is, I’d rather run this pub than be stuck with the fickle
likes of either flighty jilt.”
Whoever the women were, they
must be lacking in wits, as well as eyesight, to deny their hands in
marriage to a handsome rogue like Ashford Blackburne, Lark thought,
ignoring the talk of trade and pub profits that ensued.
She would have waited for
Ash, however long it took him to return, Lark admitted to herself, no
matter the issue of low funds, for Ashford Blackburn would know how to
treat a lady. Then again, she did not need much—a cot, a warm blanket, a
“Well now, I don’t feature
sellin’ ye me pub, me fine Lord, but I’d sure like a go at playin’
ye for it.”
At her father’s words, and no
small shot of panic, the warm haze of Lark’s musings popped. What? What
had her Da just said? Rat’s whiskers, she wished she’d been paying
“Name your stakes,” Ash said.
Lark sat straighter and peeked around the stair-wall as Ash rubbed his
clean, strong hands in glee, the fool. He’d had a great deal too much to
drink, if he was thinking of playing her Da for The Pickled Pigsty.
Lark sighed as her father called for
Toby, his barman, to bring a “fresh” deck—properly marked, of
course. She supposed she should be glad Da hadn’t tried to add her to
“If ye win, ye get me fine
pub,” said her Da, spelling out the terms and entertaining Lark with his
wit. No doubt he’d also add his secret recipe for mystery-critter stew,
and call it ambrosia. “If ye lose,” he said, shuffling the cards fast
enough to make the sots dizzy, “I get a thousand gold guineas. And just
so ye don’t go home empty-handed,” he added, generous as a Lord, “I’ll
throw in me beautiful daughter for wife, as a consolation.”
Ash gave an inebriated laugh
and took another swallow of his whiskey, as Lark rose with a silent
screech and made to leap to her own defense … until her father shot out
with a right, and liked to blacken her eye.
She hit the floor behind Ash
and scampered back to her walled stairwell as he looked up from his
drink. “Did you hear that?” Ash asked no one in particular.
“Rats,” said her Da as he
dealt the cards. “To keep the cats out.” He shuddered. “Hate the mewling
Lark cupped her throbbing
eye and refused to acknowledge the sting. She had once seen her sister
on her knees, weeping and groveling at the feet of a bloody cur, and
vowed there and then that no man would see tears in Larkin McAdams eyes
… especially not Ash, the man who’d once called her brave.
Testing her vision, Lark
saw him pointedly regard her father with speculation in his red,
Myles cleared his throat with
authority. “The daughter of an innkeeper is hardly a suitable wife for
an Earl, old man.”
No bloody fooling, Lark
thought, but her father rose, as if in indignation. “Her mother was the
daughter of a duke, I’ll have ye know,” he said in all truth, though he
failed to mention that Mum had been born on the wrong side of the
Ash’s laugh raised Larkin’s
hackles in an odd, unsettling way, as if she must prove her worth, when
she knew bloody well she had no worth to prove.
“How old is this unexpected
“Twenty-two come May.”
Ash choked on his drink. “A
bit long in the tooth.”
Larkin took offense, wishing
she could fight for her aggrieved honor, for no one else would.
“Look at it this way,” Myles
said. “Win or lose, your problem is solved.”
“I bleeding well wish he
would lose for a change,” Hunter said, retaking his seat and tossing a
handful of coins on the scarred oak table. “Might as well throw my blunt
in a cesspit.”
Ash regarded his friend Myles
with intoxicated bewilderment. “What problem will be solved if I win or
“If you win the game, you
win the pub, so you won’t need a bride or your grandfather’s blunt when
you’re turning a profit. If you lose the game, you get the bride you
need to fulfill your grandfather’s requirements. Either way, you win.”
Ash seemed to ponder some
thorny quandary, and after a stupefied minute, in which Larkin found
herself holding her breath for some odd reason, Ash nodded, as if with
respect for his friend’s wisdom. Then without thought to the
consequences of the shoddy solution, he returned his attention to the
cards in his hand—a measure of his whiskey-soaked brain.
Why did a man like Ashford
Blackburne not have brides clawing at each other to get him to the
altar? Lark wondered.
Though Ash took her father’s
“gracious” suggestion to heart, that he “start the bloody betting,”
Ash’s brow remained furrowed throughout the better part of the first
“A consolation prize for
wife,” Myles repeated, his chuckle harsh in the deep silence. “Lose and
you could have a woman with no choice but to marry you.”
Ash cursed and Larkin’s eyes
widened, but even as she tried to work up the proper measure of
indignation on his behalf, or imagine her hero losing at anything, a
rather pleasant lethargy stole over her at the very notion.
Ashford Blackburne for
husband … she should be so fortunate.
“Is she a virgin, at least?”
her erstwhile hero asked, sending a shaft of fury through Lark, and
lowering him mightily in her esteem, partly for the intimate nature of
the question, and partly because he attended more to arranging his
bloody cards than either her Da’s answer or the cheatin’ glint in her
deigned to answer, the guinea her Da tossed into the pot spun and rolled
dutifully back into his lap with none the wiser. “Me daughter is as pure
and virginal as me Inn’s snow-white bed linen,” said he.