Wedding of the Season
Abandoned at the altar…
Lady Beatrix Danbury has always known she would marry William Mallory. She’d loved him forever, and she’d never doubted he loved her, too. But when she made him choose between their life together and his lifelong dream, Will chose the latter, and left two weeks before their wedding.
Return of the duke…
Will has no illusions that Beatrix will welcome him back with open arms, but six years has not diminished his love or his desire for her. The only problem is that she’s about to marry someone else. Someone safe and predictable… the complete opposite of Will. But can he stop the wedding of the season and win Beatrix back, or is it just too late?
By the time Mrs. Gudgeon announced her name, Will was prepared for Beatrix’s arrival. He’d shifted the footstool a bit so that she could clearly see his outstretched leg from the doorway. If she hadn’t left him in the road, he wouldn’t have had to walk on his injured knee, and the swelling would have been minimal. Because of her and that automobile of hers, he was laid low in this manner, and she deserved to have a clear view of her handiwork.
“Forgive me for not standing up,” he told her with mock cheer. “But that’s rather difficult to manage at present, thanks to you.”
If he’d hoped for a display of conscience on her part, he was disappointed. “I don’t see a splint, so your leg isn’t broken.” She gave his knee a skeptical glance. “That is, if it’s injured at all.”
She no longer wore her motoring coat and goggles, he noted as she came further into the study, though she still had on those Turkish trousers, making him remember the time he’d told her she should wear trousers and ride her horse astride so she could go faster, and she’d looked at him as if he’d suggested she go naked. Did she even ride horses anymore? he wondered. If she did, no doubt it was with Trathen. That thought impelled him to take another swallow from his glass of whisky.
“I like the trousers,” he told her. “Rather daring of you to wear them, I must say. But really, Trix, since it’s of daring that we’re talking, isn’t coming here without a chaperone carrying things a bit too far? I know I’ve been away from England a long while, but I’m sure calling upon an unmarried gentlemen is still against the rules in civilized society.” His hand tightened around his glass. “You’re not married yet, you know.”
She made a sound of impatience. “Don’t be ridiculous, Will. We’ve known each other for donkey’s years. A chaperone is hardly necessary.”
“Hmm, I wonder if that’s how Trathen would see it. Does he know you’re here?”
“Leave Aidan out of this.”
“That would be the gentlemanly thing to do,” he said amiably. “Fortunately for me, I’ve been living amongst uncivilized heathens so long, I’ve forgotten how to be a gentleman.”
“You never knew how.”
He ignored that. “What would Trathen think if he heard you’d come to see me? What if he knew that scarcely two hours after I arrived, you came running over, alone, to welcome me home?”
“Welcoming you is the last thing on my mind. And as galling as it is to be reminded of how I used to moon over you and follow you everywhere—”
“Not everywhere,” he cut in incisively. “Please, Beatrix, do be accurate about these things.”
“Those days are long past. I haven’t the least interest in running after you now.”
“Ah.” He settled himself more comfortably in his chair and pasted an expectant look on his face. “You’re not concerned about me, and you’re not here to welcome me, so you must have come to apologize.”
“Apologize?” she cried. “What reason have I to apologize?”
“I’ll accept it, of course,” he added. “And I’ll be jolly civil about it, too, just to demonstrate that a lifetime of the breeding you so highly value didn’t go to waste—”
“If anyone should apologize, it’s you. I’m here,” she added before he could attempt to debate the issue, “because I want to know the real reason you’ve come home. Is it because of my wedding?”
“I thought you said I wasn’t invited.”
“You’re not. But if you were determined to make a scene in front of over five hundred people, I hardly think lack of an invitation would stop you.”
He grinned at that and raised his glass. “True enough,” he said and took another drink. “But now that I’m home, excluding me from the guest list will raise more eyebrows than inviting me would, don’t you think? The Dukes of Sunderland are invited to every social event in Devonshire. Deuced impolite of you not to invite me to your wedding. Besides, wouldn’t having me there be the best way of proving to everyone that you don’t care tuppence for me anymore?”
"I don’t need to prove that. Everyone already knows—”
“That you’re still holding a torch for me?”
She smiled sweetly. “Only if I can use it to burn you alive.”
He glanced down, memory enabling him to see beneath those full, brown velveteen trousers to the generous curves beneath. “As I recall,” he murmured, lifting his gaze to her face, “you and I never needed any torches to burn for each other.”
He had the satisfaction of watching her smile fade, but other than that, she gave him no reaction but a disdainful stare. “Your memory is flawed.”
“Is it?” He stood up, sucking in a deep breath at the pain in his knee, and began walking toward her. “I don’t think so.”
As he closed the short distance between them, he caught the fragrance of her, and a memory flashed across his mind—their engagement cotillion, a dark corner of the garden, and kissing gardenia-scented skin. Amazing how the scent and sight of her could bring it all flooding back as if six damned years had never gone by. Arousal stirred within his body, and pain, too, and both made him angry, with her and with himself.
“My memory is functioning perfectly,” he murmured, leaning closer, close enough that when he spoke again, his breath stirred the delicate wisp of hair that peeked from beneath her hat and curled against her cheek. “Would you like proof?”
She set her jaw. “No.”
He ignored that answer, compelled to provoke her on purpose, push her, gain a reaction. “I remember you always favored pink undergarments,” he said in a low voice. “Pale pink with tiny satin ribbons and lots of lace.”
She stirred, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Her cheeks flushed pink and she looked away. A reaction at last.
“I remember how the pulse in your throat used to start hammering whenever I kissed you there,” he went on, relentless and not even knowing why. “I remember the little mole just above your left—”
“Stop it.” She backed up a step, and when he started to follow her move, she lifted her hand, flattening it against his chest. “I said stop. If you don’t, I shall be forced to tell Aidan you made advances toward me, and he’ll kill you.”
“He’ll try, perhaps. But first you’ll have to tell him you came running over to see me.” He paused, smiling faintly. “Alone. Only two hours after I arrived—”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, stop saying that!” She jerked her hand down and retreated several more steps.
This time, he didn’t follow. All he’d wanted was a reaction. Besides, his leg was beginning to hurt like hell. Shifting his weight more to the left, he remained where he was, but he couldn’t resist needling her. A petty form of revenge, he knew, but all he had. “Trathen will wonder why you came here, you know. Speaking as a man, I can assure you of that.”
“Do you intend to answer my question? Did you come home to make trouble for me? To…to ‘upset the applecart’, as you put it, and make some sort of scene at my wedding?”
She really thought he’d do that? Will studied her for a moment, noting the anxious way she was biting her lip, the way her hands were clenching and unclenching. Evidently she thought him capable of that very thing. “Terrible for you if I burst into St. Paul’s and strode up the aisle, shouting breach of promise, or something,” he murmured, not feeling inclined to reassure her. “The society pages would be full of it for days.”
She stiffened and her hands unclenched to rest on her hips. “If embarrassing me is your intent, I can safely say you won’t succeed. Having been jilted practically on the church doorstep, pitied as the deserted fiancée, and laughed at for making such a fool of myself over you when you were only stringing me along, I can safely say that nothing you do will ever embarrass me again.”
“I strung you along?” He gave a laugh, a laugh that sounded bitter, even to his own ears. “That’s the pot talking to the kettle. What about you?”
“Me?” She blinked, clearly taken aback. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t you? What of all the times you pretended to care about my interests? All my books about Egyptology you borrowed, all the sketches of artifacts you drew for me, the rapt way you listened whenever I talked about excavating a site of my own one day? Pretending, always pretending, to be as fascinated by it all as I was. But that was a lie.”
“I wasn’t pretending, and I did not lie! I wanted to understand your interests, try to appreciate and share them.”
“Yet when the opportunity came to share them in truth, you showed your interest in Egypt to be nothing but a farce.”
“I never dreamt you’d actually go! I thought—” She stopped, as if suddenly realizing she was heading into deep waters. Pressing her lips together, she looked away.
“You thought it was a fantasy and nothing more,” he finished for her. “Wonderful and exciting to dream about archaeology, wasn’t it? But only if the dream never became reality. All right for you to humor dear Will whenever he talked about digging up tombs in Egypt as long as we were still sitting by the fire here in merry old England, eating plum pudding at Sunderland for Christmas, going to London for the season, Epsom, Ascot and Henley, coming back to Torquay for August, country house parties in September—”
“Yes!” she cried, interrupting his derisive catalogue of a typical peer’s life. She met his gaze again, hers defiant. “What’s wrong with that?”
“It wasn’t the life I wanted! And you knew it. You always knew.”
“But it’s the life you were born to.” She shook her head, her defiance seeming to fade into bafflement. “You’re a duke.”
Even now, even after all this time, she still couldn’t see beyond their lineage. He doubted she ever would. “Yes, I’m a duke,” he conceded, making no attempt to conceal his contempt for that meaningless happenstance of birth, “and you want to be a duchess. First me, now Trathen.” He took another drink. “Well, for what you want in life, one duke’s as good as another, I suppose.”
“His rank isn’t the reason I’m marrying him! Do you really think I’m that shallow?”
“I don’t know. You seemed to love my position more than you ever loved me, for you abandoned me quickly enough when I didn’t want to fulfill it.”
“You think I abandoned you?” She stared at him in disbelief. “I’m not the one who broke an understanding that went back to our childhood. I’m not the one who decided to go off to another continent just before our wedding. All our lives—” Her voice choked up, telling him he wasn’t the only one who’d felt the pain of their separation. A reaction was what he’d wanted, but somehow, it gave him no satisfaction. It just hurt him more. “All our lives, Will, you knew what was expected of us. You knew the duties and responsibilities you were to assume. You abandoned them, and me.”
“Yes, there it was, my whole life laid out for me before I was even out of short pants. Can you blame me when a life I’d only ever dreamed of opened up? A life, I might add, you led me to believe you’d be willing to share. Remember that barrow of Roman ruins I dug up one summer? You sketched all the artifacts, you helped me research and catalog what we found. You visited the British Museum with me every time we went to London. When Sir Edmund offered to take me to Egypt, it never occurred to me you’d balk at coming along, though in hindsight, I suppose I should have known you couldn’t leave your dear Papa.”
Too late he remembered her father was dead. He saw her chin quiver at the reminder, and he suddenly felt like a bastard. “Hell,” he muttered and looked away.
“You wanted me to abandon him!” she cried. “How could I? After Mama ran off to Paris all those years ago, abandoning her family and her duties as a countess? And for what? So that she could paint and live like a bohemian?”
“It changed your father when your mother left. He wore any sense of adventure out of you. I didn’t really realize just how tightly he had you chained until you wouldn’t come with me.”
“That’s not fair! How could I leave Papa and go to Egypt?”
“You were going to be my wife! Damn me for a fool to believe you wanted to be my partner in life, no matter where it led us. But it wasn’t me you wanted.”
“That’s not true.”
“You wanted the trappings. You wanted to live in this house, three miles from your father, where everything was safe and familiar and approved by all. Coming with me would have meant defying all that and jumping into a whole new world, and you couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just about leaving your father. When it came down to brass tacks, you were too afraid to go.”
“Afraid?” She blinked, staring at him as if he’d actually said something absurd. “Are you saying I’m a coward?”
“I don’t know. Are you? Remember when we were children and Paul, Julie and I used to dive off Angel’s Head into the sea at Pixy Cove? You wanted to do it, too, but you couldn’t work up the nerve.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” She tried to turn as if to leave, but he wouldn’t let her. Not until he’d made his point.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” he said, grabbing her by the arms. “We’d all dived off, and we were down in the water below, waiting for you. You wanted to. You wanted to dive off so bad you could taste it, and you stood up there for the longest time, but in the end, you couldn’t do it. You sat down and said you’d rather look at the view.”
“I was only ten years old! All of you were older.”
“What about when I wanted to teach you to ride without a sidesaddle? You wouldn’t do it. You wanted to, but you were too afraid someone would see you, namely your father. You were terrified of what he would think.”
“That’s hardly the same as packing up one’s whole life and moving to another country!” she cried, jerking free of his hold. “I wanted marriage and a home of my own. That precious excavation site of yours didn’t even include a house. I wanted children, Will. Just where was I supposed to have them? In a tent?”
“I told you I would build a house for you!” he shouted.
“No, Will,” she countered in a hard voice. “Not for me. It would have been an expedition house with bedrooms for your staff. I was engaged to a duke, not an archaeologist! And I had every right to continue to expect the security for me and my children that your position afforded us. As for not loving you—” She broke off and took a deep breath. “It took me five years to stop loving you. Five years. I just couldn’t believe you were gone forever. I just couldn’t accept it. I knew it was over, and yet, I kept waiting for you. Waiting for you to realize you loved me, too. Waiting for you to accept your responsibilities at home. Waiting, waiting. I got over you when I finally admitted the truth.”
“Truth? What truth?”
“That you weren’t worth waiting for.”
The impact of her words hit him like a slap across the face, but there was no way he would let her see it. He remained perfectly still, his gaze locked with hers, and it was she who looked away first. “If I see you anywhere near the church door on my wedding day, Aidan won’t have to kill you, because I will.”
With that, she turned on her heel and stalked out of his study without a backward glance.
The sound of her footsteps echoing along the corridor had not even faded away before he was reaching into his pocket to pull out the announcement of her engagement to another man. He stared at the crumpled bit of newspaper for a moment, then with an oath, he ripped it savagely into pieces.
He’d see Paul as soon as possible, he decided as he tossed the fragments into the rubbish basket. He’d get that funding, resolve any other unfinished business matters he had in this repressed, class-conscious country in which he’d had the misfortune to be born, and return to Egypt where he belonged, where there was important work to do and discoveries to be made. And when he left this time, he thought, staring resentfully down at the torn bits of newsprint, it would damn well be for good.