CAN AN INDECENT PROPOSAL
Eight years ago, a tall handsome stranger entered Lizzie Allbright's bedchamber and consummated a marriage of the utmost necessity. The Marquis of Steyne agreed to wed and bed Lord Bute's admittedly lovely daughter to pay off his mother's gambling debts. But once the deed was done, Steyne's lawfully-wedded wife vanished into the London night…
LEAD TO EVERLASTING LOVE?
Years later, Steyne has nearly forgotten about his runaway bride. But when he suddenly finds himself in need of an heir, he has no choice but to track her down. Living happily in a small village under an assumed name, Lizzie is surprised to see her husband—and to feel such a strong attraction to him. But she is downright shocked when he asks her to bear him a son. How can they possibly repeat the heated encounter of their ill-fated wedding night without falling hopelessly in love?...in Christina Brooke's stunningly sexy Regency, The Wickedest Lord Alive.
Christina Brooke's historical romances are:
"Clever, lush, and lovely."—Suzanne Enoch
"Sensual and passionate."—Publishers Weekly
"Delightful." —Night Owl Romance
About the Author
Christina Brooke is a former lawyer who staged a brilliant escape from the corporate world and landed squarely in Regency England.
She is a Golden Heart winner and two-time RITA finalist and her books have also been nominated for RT's Reviewer's Choice Award, Bookseller's Best and the Australian Romantic Book of the Year Award. The first two books in her Westruthers series, LONDON'S LAST TRUE SCOUNDREL and THE GREATEST LOVER EVER, have garnered Top Picks from RT Magazine.
Christina makes her home in sunny Queensland, Australia with her husband, two boys and one enormous girl dog called Monty. Monty is the inspiration for Ophelia, the Great Dane in the Ministry of Marriage series. However, the resemblance of any human characters to real life people is purely accidental.
Christina loves to travel, particularly to England for research and most especially to see her dear friends and colleagues in the United States. She also loves walking, window shopping for antiques and enjoying good food, good wine and good times with her friends and family.
Read an Excerpt
The Wickedest Lord Alive
By Christina Brooke
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Christina Brooke
All rights reserved.
Eight years later ...
The villagers of Little Thurston did not know what they had ever done without Miss Elizabeth Allbright. If the squire was the backbone of the community, the vicar its spirit, and old Lady Chard its spleen, Miss Allbright was undoubtedly its heart.
Known as Lizzie to her friends, Miss Allbright lived at the vicarage with the parson of the parish, who had taken her in eight years before.
It seemed to the Little Thurstonians that an angel had come amongst them. A tall, flaxen-haired angel with fey green eyes and an enchantingly wistful smile.
No one, least of all Miss Allbright herself, knew anything about her origins. She'd arrived by the grace of a good farmer who had taken her up with him at the crossroads. He'd known precisely where to take a gently bred girl who had clearly been terrorized by some horrific experience into losing her past.
Miss Allbright had only the clothes she'd stood up in and a few coins in her purse, and no memory at all of her previous life, or even of her name.
The young lady had never recalled the location of her home or who her people were. She did not appear to regret those lost years, nor did she show the slightest sign she yearned for her family or her former home. She became a daughter of the heart to the childless vicar and his wife, and called herself by their name.
Now she seemed such an integral part of the small community at Little Thurston that her sad history was almost forgotten.
"But are you truly happy remaining here in Little Thurston forever, Lizzie?" said Clare Beauchamp. "Don't you long for something more?"
Clare was the daughter of Lord Fenton, the major landowner of the district. She was diminutive and very pretty, with black hair and a pair of lively gray eyes. She reminded one of a kitten, until one realized there was a clever, devious mind behind that dimple-cheeked façade. Not many gentlemen did realize it, fortunately for Clare, who enjoyed the status of reigning belle in the district.
"Of course I am happy." Lizzie stood back to judge the balance and tastefulness of a huge display of spring flowers she had arranged for this evening's assembly. She made a dissatisfied grimace. Her talents, such as they were, did not extend to floral art. Instead of the fan shape she'd been striving to achieve, the blooms tottered drunkenly to one side.
"You are simply buried here." Clare stepped in, her nimble fingers quickly making a showpiece of the mess Lizzie had wrought. "I wish you would come to London with me for the season next year. It would be beyond anything."
"Your aunt might have something to say about that." Lizzie did not add that she had no money and a London season was frightfully expensive. Quite apart from the obvious objections to making her debut.
"Oh, tosh! Aunt Sadie would be delighted to have you. You know she would." Clare's cheek dimpled. "She'd depend on you to keep me out of trouble."
"I expect that's a task quite beyond my capabilities," Lizzie teased.
Clare grinned, plucking an extraneous fern frond from the urn before them. "I know that, but Aunt Sadie doesn't."
"Everything I want or need is right here in Little Thurston," said Lizzie. "Good Heavens, why should I wish to go to London?"
Clare opened her eyes wide. "To get a husband, of course. Why does any young lady go to London?"
"I am not so very young anymore," said Lizzie. "I am almost five-and-twenty, you know."
"Oh, past your last prayers, indeed." Clare tickled Lizzie's chin with her fern. "Silly. Don't you want to fall in love?"
With difficulty, Lizzie repressed a shudder. No. She most certainly did not want to fall in love.
"My sole ambition is to end up an old maid and become the terror of Little Thurston," she said with a chuckle.
"Speaking of terrors, how is the coven?" said Clare, referring to the old ladies of Little Thurston whom Lizzie gathered together once a week.
"I thought they would take Miss Richland's passing to heart," admitted Lizzie. "And of course, one never truly knows, but I believe they are all sadly inured to their peers leaving them. At any rate, a great deal of sherry was drunk — for the shock, you know — and they reminisced about some of the more atrocious things Miss R. did while she was alive. I think she would have appreciated it very much."
"Miss Richland was a Tartar," said Clare. "I don't know how you put up with her."
"She had spirit and determination," said Lizzie. "One can't help admiring that, even when it makes the person a trifle difficult to deal with."
"By 'a trifle difficult,' you mean she threw china at your head and called you 'that Beanpole,'" said Clare. "She ought to have been grateful to you, rather."
Lizzie didn't see it that way. She liked visiting the older ladies of the parish. Whether it was because time had worn away their inhibitions or they simply belonged to a more licentious generation, hobnobbing with the elderly female denizens of Little Thurston was quite an education.
In some strange way, she felt more comfortable with them than with many ladies of her own age, whose chatter was entirely of fashion and husbands and babies. All except for Clare, whose idea of a comfortable coze was a keen political debate.
Picking up her basket, Lizzie tucked her other hand in the crook of Clare's arm. "Let's go. You must rest and primp for the ball and I must call on the Minchins and Lady Chard."
"Ha!" said Clare. "Rest and primp, indeed. No, I shall draft my next petition."
Clare wished to be a politician, but given that ladies were not allowed to vote, much less stand for Parliament, she had to content herself with plaguing the life out of Mr. Huntley, their resident MP.
"Poor Mr. Huntley," murmured Lizzie.
"Well, he can stand down if he doesn't like it, can't he?" said Clare with relish. "Only, we'd need another candidate, and there is no one I can think of who might be half as worthy. Besides Tom, but he won't do it," she said, glumly dismissing her brother. "That is why it's so important that I marry."
"So you can plague your new husband instead," said Lizzie.
A heavy tread preceded the large figure of Mr. Huntley, MP, himself. He was moderately handsome, with a thick head of light brown hair and kind gray eyes. He was only in his twenties, but election to Parliament at an early age had lent him a confidence and slightly ponderous dignity that made him seem older than his years.
Lizzie curtsied to him. "Mr. Huntley, we were just speaking of you."
His face lightened until he noticed Clare and gave a slight recoil. "Ah," he said, adjusting his cravat. "Yes. No doubt."
After a slight pause during which Clare simply looked enigmatic, Mr. Huntley brightened again. He clapped his hands together and held them clasped while he surveyed the room. "Delightful, Miss Allbright! Simply delightful! But then you always do us proud, my dear." He waggled a finger at her. "I shall claim a waltz from you tonight, you know."
"What a surprise," muttered Clare.
"I should be happy, Mr. Huntley," said Lizzie, with another curtsy and a covert glare at her friend that said behave. Clare rolled her eyes in response.
To distract him from Clare's rudeness, Lizzie asked Mr. Huntley how his mother did — a topic that never failed to elicit a lengthy response. So it proved that afternoon, and the long history of Mrs. Huntley's illnesses and megrims occupied at least a quarter of an hour, time that Lizzie could ill spare.
She was hard put to keep her attention fixed, until Huntley said, "It is a vast pity my mother's poor health prevents her from attending the assembly this evening."
His regard rested on Lizzie in a way she could only construe as meaningful. A vast pity she had not the slightest idea to what he referred.
"Indeed, sir?" she said.
He grasped his coat lapels and rocked a little on his heels. "Yes, for I expect to make an important announcement at supper, you know. I may leave you to guess what it will be about."
"Good grief," muttered Clare.
"An important ..." Lizzie looked from her friend to Mr. Huntley and back again. Understanding came in an unwelcome rush.
Oh, dear. Mr. Huntley was at it again.
"Really, sir," said Lizzie. "I cannot think what you mean."
Now his eyebrows and his index finger waggled in unison. "Ah, you mean to tease me, Miss Allbright, but I vow you take my meaning." He made an arch sort of moue. "Until tonight, then, ladies."
With a bow that owed more to correctness than grace, Mr. Huntley left the ballroom.
There was a silence. Then Lizzie blew out a long breath. "Do you think he'll actually do it this time?"
Clare snorted. "Of course not. Mrs. Huntley's vapors are more than a match for his tepid intentions toward you, dear Lizzie. Ten to one, his dear mama will throw out a rash or have a spasm or some such thing, and we will not see Mr. Huntley at the ball at all."
Clare twirled a stray ringlet around her finger. "Which is a shame, really. For I would give anything to see you hand him his marching orders."
Lizzie smiled but said, "Oh, no, how can you be so unfeeling?"
"If the man can't pluck up the gumption to propose marriage after five years of mooning over you, he doesn't deserve my compassion."
Lizzie sighed. "I suppose you're right. The trouble is that he has treated our marriage as a foregone conclusion for so long that everyone in the village believes we're promised to each other."
Clare shrugged. "Then you must tell everyone it's no such thing."
"I would, but no one ever asks me if it's true," said Lizzie. "I suppose it is a little strange that I should not wish to marry him. I mean, he is a respectable man of good fortune and not in his dotage. I could scarcely do better."
"Bite your tongue, you foolish, foolish girl," said Clare, swatting Lizzie's shoulder with her fern frond. "You are a thousand times too good for Mr. Huntley."
"You are a true friend to say so," said Lizzie, conscious there were many in the village who would not share Clare's view. "But the fact remains that I am a nobody who is firmly on the shelf, and Mr. Huntley is extremely eligible."
Of course Lizzie couldn't marry anyone, eligible or not, for a very good reason.
Contrary to the deception she had perpetrated on the good people of Little Thurston, Lizzie remembered very well who she was and where she'd come from. Not to mention why she could not wed Mr. Huntley, even if he were to screw his courage to the sticking place and ask.
She was Lady Alexandra Simmons, daughter of the Earl of Bute. And she was already married to the Marquis of Steyne.
But the marquis didn't want her. And she was never going back to her father's house. Never, ever again.
* * *
Far later than she'd planned, Lizzie hurried along with her basket and her book to Lady Chard's. The lady was elderly and astringent, but she shared with Lizzie a penchant for novels, from Waverley to the more lurid Mysteries of Udolpho.
Lizzie delighted in indulging her talent for drama by reading these aloud to Her ladyship. Today, she'd brought Sense and Sensibility, but her favorite of Miss Austen's works was Pride and Prejudice. In fact, upon coming to Little Thurston, she'd named herself after its heroine.
No one else would have guessed that beneath Lady Chard's snappish demeanor beat the heart of a true romantic. That was the thing about people. There were layers to them you simply didn't see on the surface. Sometimes you had to excavate a little.
Lately, the good lady had taken to matchmaking, which was a little tiresome of her.
Lizzie had not been devoid of suitors over the years she'd been at Little Thurston, but she never treated any of them with more than the friendly courtesy she showed every other gentleman in the district. None had been so smitten nor so egotistical as to believe she'd welcome their addresses.
Only Mr. Huntley persisted. Not because he was in love with her, although he often gave her ponderous compliments on her propriety of taste or her modest demeanor. Rather, Mr. Huntley wanted to wed her because he thought her upbringing in the vicar's household stood her in good stead for life as an MP's wife.
If only she could bring herself to leap the twin hurdles of her own previous marriage (a high hurdle, that!) and Mr. Huntley's deadly respectability, marriage to him would have advantages. She could remain in Little Thurston, no longer a spinster but a married woman with her own household. Leaving aside Mr. Huntley's mother and her gentle tyranny, a young woman in Lizzie's position couldn't do better.
And babies ... How she longed for children of her own! That longing was so powerful that she did sometimes imagine how different her life would be if she were free to marry and set up her own household.
But she wasn't free, so thinking along those lines was as futile as it was fanciful. She would remain Lizzie Allbright, spinster, until her twenty-fifth birthday. Then she would declare herself to her trustees and claim the fortune that would come to her on that date as an ostensibly unmarried woman. As far as she could discover, her marriage to Steyne remained a secret from the world. Once she'd attained full majority and financial independence, her father could no longer command her in any way.
And then she would pay a well-overdue call on the Marquis of Steyne.
She knocked on Lady Chard's front door and tried to compose herself. She'd raced there directly after calling on the Minchin family, so her plain dimity gown bore a few smuts of dirt. Having intended only to deliver a basket of provisions, she'd discovered the Minchins in chaos after one of their father's bouts of drunkenness the night before.
The children's pale, scared faces tugged at her heart. She stayed longer than she'd intended, helping Mrs. Minchin clean and mend and generally restore order to the cottage.
Afterwards, there'd been no opportunity to change if she wished to keep her appointment with Lady Chard. The older lady was a stickler for punctuality.
Lizzie was hardly in a fit state for company, which made it rather provoking of her ladyship to be entertaining guests.
Lizzie heard the deep rumble of masculine speech from inside the drawing room as she followed the butler down the corridor. Surely Lady Chard had run through all the eligible gentlemen in the county by now with her matchmaking schemes.
The butler announced Lizzie. With an inward grimace at the appearance she presented, knowing Lady Chard would rake her over the coals for it, she moved to the threshold.
And very nearly dropped her basket and her book.
There were two gentlemen in the room. One with an expressive, handsome countenance and a head of thick hair the deep, lustrous gold of Lady Chard's ormolu clock.
The other ...
The other man's black head turned. Eyes the color of sapphires regarded Lizzie from beneath those unforgettable slashing brows. His face was impassive as he studied her.
This man was no potential suitor.
He was her husband, the Marquis of Steyne.CHAPTER 2
The shock held Lizzie suspended for several seconds, as if under a deep, quiet sea. She couldn't hear a sound, couldn't speak, couldn't breathe....
Lord Steyne had married, bedded, and abandoned her without a qualm — or at least, without hesitation. The sight of him, tall, arrogant, with that intense look in his eyes, brought their night together rushing back. A wash of heat flowed through her at the memory of his touch. Fierce longings swirled in her chest.
Was he here to claim her, after all this time?
"Well, don't just stand there like a looby, gel," said Lady Chard, yanking her out of her trance. Lady Chard flapped her hand in a beckoning gesture that made the drapes of flesh beneath her arm wobble. "Come in and let me make you known to my guests."
Years of dissimulation came to Lizzie's rescue. She filled her lungs with a calming flood of air, and sank into a curtsy as Lady Chard made the introductions.
"Miss Allbright." Steyne's tone was dryly ironic, his bow a mere inclination of the head that clearly expressed skepticism.
Lizzie made a small production of relinquishing her basket and book to the butler — so much for Sense and Sensibility — then propelled herself by sheer force of will toward the grouping of chairs around a handsome Adam fireplace, where the small party stood. She sat opposite the two gentlemen, while Lady Chard disposed herself in the armchair in a cloud of black bombazine.
Would he expose her imposture, here and now, in Lady Chard's drawing room? She'd lied to the people of Little Thurston since she arrived here at seventeen. Now, thanks to the Marquis of Steyne, her house of cards would come tumbling down about her.
There seemed no way to prevent the marquis's revealing the truth right then and there. She'd intended to break it to the vicar and all their friends upon her twenty-fifth birthday, but she didn't want it to be like this.
Rather than denounce her on the instant, the marquis simply scrutinized her with insolent thoroughness. He remained silent as a stone while Lord Lydgate — a distant cousin of his, she gathered — made elegant conversation.
Excerpted from The Wickedest Lord Alive by Christina Brooke. Copyright © 2014 Christina Brooke. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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