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       Magic, Mystery, Laughter...and Happily Ever After





Annette Blair, NY Times & USA Today Bestseller



An Untamable Rogue

(Formerly: A Christmas Baby)

London, March, 1818

The Rogues Club--4th in the Series





          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 arrival.

          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 mockery.

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 turned crimson.

“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,” Hunter added.

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 rather be.

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 three more.

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 disappeared altogether.

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 jilted again.”

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 take him.”

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 monthly bath.

“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 attention.

“Name your stakes,” Ash said.

Oh no. 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 the pot.

“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 things.”

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, drink-dazed eyes.

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 blanket.

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 blue-blood?”

“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 lose?”

“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 hand.

“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 sire’s eyes.

Before he 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.

pt, Ch







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