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by Deborah Mullins
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Needless to say, Rathmore was all but invisible as he stood silently watching his childhood friend, the Earl of Knightsbridge, wed the lovely Lady Penelope Albright. Lady Farvendale, Lady Penelope's grandmother, was the first to notice him, and then only by the veriest chance when the long, curling feather from her hat happened to tickle her eye. She turned her head to blow the offending feather back into place and noticed the dark shadow that was Rathmore against the rear wall of the chapel.
A peculiar choking sound escaped her lips, drawing the attention of those around her. With a weak smile, she feigned a cough and returned her attention to the wedding. But moments later, her gaze once more strayed to the back of the chapel. Lady Agatha Strathwaite, grandmother to the groom, noticed Lady Farvendale's preoccupation and followed her gaze. She frowned as she saw Rathmore, not in anger but more in puzzlement. Whatever was he doing here? What did he think to accomplish by coming to the wedding?
One by one, like ripples on a pond, heads turned. One would hardly know a wedding was going on with all the attention being paid to the far wall. But then again, it was very rare that a murderer was invited to a wedding.
Miss Margaret Stanton-Lynch, granddaughter of the Duke of Raynewood and cousin to the groom, knew something was amiss when Reverend Starks stumbled over the vows. The vicar prided himself on the precision of his elocution, and he had no doubt practiced for the earl's marriage ceremony so many times that she was sure he murmured the words in his sleep. But stumble he did, substituting the word "life" for "wife," and then staring so intensely at the rear of the chapel that Meg was certain Lucifer himself must have arrived at the wedding.
But when she glanced behind her, she saw nothing to cause the reverend such consternation. All she saw was a tall, dark-haired man dressed impeccably in black, who gazed rather fiercely at the couple standing before the vicar. The man had the face of a fallen angel, long and lean with high cheekbones and a sensual mouth, so no doubt the reverend could be forgiven for imagining the devil had indeed attended the ceremony. But no, this was just a man, a wealthy one from the cut of his clothing, and while he was certainly a handsome specimen, she wasn't impressed. She'd learned the hard way that a kind heart did not necessarily accompany such good looks.
Though his was an attractive face. She pondered the matter for a moment, studying the stranger's aristocratic visage as if he were some majestic work of art. Perhaps sensing her scrutiny, he looked over, locking his dark gaze on her with the same ferocity with which he had regarded the bridal couple. She didn't look away, not even when a shiver of attraction rippled through her. Instead she smiled at him and nodded politely.
She turned back to the ceremony, but out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the incredulity that flashed across his face before his perfect features tightened into a scowl.
She paid him no mind. She had seen his like before, men so handsome and so charismatic that they attracted women like flies to honey. Well, she wouldn't be dazzled. No doubt the fellow had expected her to blush and stammer in response to being noticed by a man of his magnificence. It wasn't going to happen.
No, the man who turned Meg Lynch's head would have to prove himself more than goodlooking and well bred. He would have to be a man of sound moral stamp who cared more for other people than he did for his wardrobe. Except for her cousin Knightsbridge, she had yet to meet such a man in England.
But as people continued to glance back at the stranger against the far wall, as they continued to whisper, she wondered if she would see him at the wedding breakfast.
Justin St. James, Earl of Rathmore, ignored the stares of the congregation. Let them stare. Let them whisper. He had expected it.
The whispering grew slowly, like a stirring in the leaves of a tree. Clothing rustled as people turned to glance back at him. He looked back impassively. Let them think what they would. He knew why he was there.
He tried to focus on the bride and groom, but a movement drew his attention to a dark-haired young woman sitting at the front of the chapel. The gel was studying him as if he were a butterfly on a pin. It unsettled him, the way she contemplated him so analytically. He gave her his fiercest stare, the one that had caused Miss Prudence Gunn to swoon at the one and only soirée he had attended since he had returned to England. But this girl did not swoon. Nor did she blush, titter, or flirt. She smiled at him.
He couldn't have been more stunned if she'd pulled out a pistol and shot him. And then after she smiled at him, she had the audacity to turn back to the wedding as if she had forgotten his existence. His brows snapped together, and he found himself growing unreasonably annoyed. Was the girl mad? Or was she simply foolish? There had to be something wrong with her, some defect that made her smile at him in front of an entire church of people. Had she no care for her reputation? Didn't she realize who he was?
He kept an eye on the intriguing brunette, so caught up in his thoughts that he almost didn't realize that the murmuring of the congregation had slowly risen to the level of a lively hive of bees. When the disturbance became so loud as to be noticeable, the reverend frowned and raised his voice as he said the words that would seal the union of the couple before him.
Suddenly the wedding was over, and Knightsbridge turned to proudly present his lovely bride to the congregation. Rathmore knew the exact moment the groom spotted him. A smile of pure pleasure transformed Knightsbridge's features. Damn it all. He was trapped.
He couldn't leave now. He would have to follow through and make an appearance at the wedding breakfast. Only then could he slip quietly away to obscurity -- which was where society preferred him anyway -- and attempt to continue his impossible quest.
Blasted gossips, he thought with a glare at the busybodies cramming the pews. And damn that black-haired chit for distracting him until it was too late to take his leave.
Champagne and good wishes flowed in equal plenty at the wedding breakfast. Lady Knightsbridge blushed and looked adoringly at her new husband. Knightsbridge appeared proud enough to pop the fastenings of his coat. Rathmore stood alone in the corner of the room, his face remote, a glass of champagne forgotten in his hand. Not a soul spoke to him.
He hadn't expected anything different. He would stay only long enough to satisfy convention, and then he would take his leave. Not that a man with his reputation should give a fig about convention, but he would not have it said that the Devil Earl, as society called him now, had ruined Knightsbridge's wedding. So conventional he would be, at least for today.
He scanned the crowd, noting that the usual overly plump country gentry and their equally wellfed wives had all attended the affair. Fashionably dressed young bloods, some of whom he had once counted among his friends, ignored his existence. Stone-faced matrons looked past him when he chanced to gaze on them, and the delicate flowers they guarded, this year's crop of marriageable virgins, all blushed and giggled and pretended not to see him.
All but one.
There she was, the dark-haired girl from the chapel. And she was staring at him again, a slight frown between her slim black brows, her lush bottom lip caught between her teeth. She tapped her glass of lemonade with one finger and didn't seem at all disconcerted to discover him looking at her. Instead, she nodded at him, and her expression changed from concentration to determination. She began to make her way toward him.
She was daft. She had to be. Only a madwoman would approach the Earl of Rathmore in full view of all of society.
But if she was a madwoman, she was a beautiful one.
She moved through the crowd like a swan across a lake, all grace and slender beauty. Her skin was the palest white, making a sharp contrast to her ink-black hair, though the gentle rose of good health graced her cheeks. Her pale blue morning her sweetly curved body. Rathmore found his gaze drifting to her breasts -- just a bit more ample than one would expect for so slender a girl -- before he jerked his attention back up to her face. As she reached his side, he noticed that her eyes were the same shade of blue as a lake on a clear summer day, and when she smiled, adorable dimples creased her cheeks.
His own romantic thoughts shocked him. Dear God, had solitude turned him into some maudlin poet? She was just a girl, and a bold one at that. "Hello," she said when she had reached his side. "I'm Meg, the groom's cousin. And you are . . . ?" Her accent gave her away. Not daft, then. Just American.
"Rathmore," he replied after a moment. Then he waited.
She didn't freeze in terror. She didn't run screaming from the room. She smiled at him. Again.
"Is that your title?" she asked. "I've noticed that most English gentlemen prefer to be called by their titles."
"It is." He peered at her curiously. Intelligence lurked in those guileless blue eyes, but she obviously had the survival instincts of an infant. Still, at least she was talking to him. Standing abandoned like a bloody pariah was not a way to keep wagging tongues from tainting Knightsbridge's wedding day.
He sipped champagne, biding his time. No doubt someone would come fetch the girl at any moment, once they realized to whom she was speaking. "You're American, aren't you?"
"I suppose my accent gave me away," she said with a laugh.
"You'd be right." Her laugh was lower than he expected, huskier. Sensual. "How long have you been in England?"
"Since the beginning of the Season." She blinked those lovely blue eyes and smiled with a crease of dimples. "I don't recall seeing you about." "I've been out of the country."
"How exciting! I love to travel, though so far I've only been here to England, and of course, to America."
"Of course." He glanced around. No rampaging mama in sight. No irate husband or furious brother. "And you say you are Knightsbridge's cousin?"
"Second cousin. Or is it third?" She shrugged, sending her dark curls shifting over her shoulders. "I can never keep such things straight, but every Englishman I've ever met can recite his family tree back to the Conqueror." She paused, pursing her lips as she regarded him thoughtfully. "May I ask you a very rude question?"
"Certainly," he replied, fascinated despite himself. "Who are you? I've noticed that no one but me has come forward to speak to you. Have you been gone so long that no one remembers you?" He gave a grim smile. "Oh, they remember me."
"It must be your looks," she mused, once more tapping her finger against her lemonade glass. "You're very fierce-looking, you know."
"Am I?" He sipped his champagne, surreptitiously scanning the room. Still, no one came to fetch her.
"I'm certain you know it. Your eyes are so dark they're almost black."As was his heart, if society was to be believed.
"My mother was French," was all he said. "My mother was Irish," she said. "I wonder if I win."
He glanced at her, and her impish grin encouraged his lips to curl in response. "Win what?"
"Win the prize for being the most disreputable. I've often been told by gentlemen that they would be willing to overlook my unfortunate Irish heritage should I do them the great honor of marrying them. No doubt the dowry my grandfather has settled on me would cancel out such a blemish on my acceptability. But given the recent war, perhaps being half French is even worse than being half Irish. What do you think?"
He stared at her for a long moment, and then he burst out laughing, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.
No irate papa rushed forward to rip her from his clutches. No incensed suitors threatened him with dawn appointments. He saw Knightsbridge glance over and smile at them, but that was all. And he was glad for it.
He glanced back at Meg. Who was this girl? How was it she could stand and talk to a man society had condemned without damaging her own reputation? She was either a paragon of society or else had committed some sin far worse than his. He leaned toward the former.
Captivated, he asked, "Where does a woman like you come from?"
"America." Her blue eyes twinkled with mirth. And he laughed again.
Meg smiled as Rathmore's booming laugh echoed throughout the room. It sounded as if he hadn't had much laughter in his life, and she was glad she had amused him. There was something about him that called to her, a loneliness that she knew all too well.
She saw the way he kept looking around, as if he expected someone to come and drag her away from him. Obviously he was not a favorite in the Polite World. She wondered if he was new to society. Or poor. Or, God help him, in trade. When he looked behind her again, she couldn't take it anymore.
"If you are looking for my chaperone," she announced, "look no further than the bridegroom."
His brows arched in surprise. "Knightsbridge is your duenna?"
"For the moment." She looked down at her glass, a pang of worry going through her. "My grandfather is quite ill, so he did not attend. And Lady Agatha, who usually accompanies me, has suffered a dizzy spell and gone upstairs to rest. She's not as young as she thinks she is."
"I'm sorry to hear your grandfather is unwell. And your chaperone." The sympathy in his voice smoothed over the ache in her heart.
She sighed. "Grandfather seemed fine at the beginning of the Season, when Garrett came, but after Garrett married Lucinda and went back to America, Grandfather grew very ill and has not left Raynewood Abbey since."
Rathmore grew very still. "And who is your grandfather, Meg?"
"The Duke of Raynewood," she replied. "Lady Agatha, his sister, is -- "
" -- Knightsbridge's grandmother," Rathmore finished for her.
"Which is why we're cousins."
"And who is Garrett?"
"My brother. He married Lucinda Devering, and they went back to America. They're coming back in March for the Season."
Rathmore set his glass down on a nearby table.
"Meg, you should not be talking to me."
"Nonsense," she said with a wave of her hand. "I know that under most circumstances, unmarried girls do not talk to gentlemen alone, but we are hardly alone in front of an entire room of people." "You don't understand." He hesitated. "I am not the sort of man your grandfather would want you to be talking to."
"If you are so terrible, how did you get invited to the wedding?" she challenged.
"Knightsbridge and I were boyhood friends. My estate adjoins his."
"Are you a rake?" she demanded. "A fortune hunter?"
"Of course not." Irritation edged his tone.
"Miss . . . Meg, please trust me when I tell you that you risk your good name by being seen with me." "My name is Miss Stanton-Lynch," she said, "but Meg is just fine. And as long as you do not intend to break my heart or steal my fortune, then Grandfather would have no objection to my talking to you."
"You might be surprised."
Before she could reply, a servant approached them with a note in hand. "Your pardon, Lord Rathmore, but this just arrived for you." With a bow, the servant withdrew.
Rathmore ripped open the note. A ripple of concern crossed his face, and Meg had to force herself not to peek at the missive over his shoulder. Then he looked up, and his face was shuttered and polite. "Is it bad news?"
"Emily -- my ward -- has run away." He crumpled the note in his hand. "If you will excuse me, I must take my leave of the bride and groom." His distress was a palpable thing, for all that he tried to hide it. She laid a hand on his arm. "I hope you find her quickly."
"So do I." He sketched a bow, then left her to bid farewell to Knightsbridge and Penelope. His duty done, he didn't look at her again as he left the room. She nibbled her lower lip as she watched him leave. What a fascinating man. And those dark eyes. Goodness, but her heart still fluttered in her breast, even though he had already quit the room. Who exactly was he? And why was such a handsome and charming gentleman so obviously shunned by society?
"My word, Miss Stanton-Lynch, are you all right?" Lady Farvendale, clad head-to-toe in her favorite shade of purple, hurried to her side. "Did that man say anything to upset you?" "Of course not." Meg sipped her lemonade to hide her annoyance at the woman's assumption. "Lord Rathmore was most pleasant."
"He'd better have behaved himself." The dowager clasped a jewel-beringed hand to her ample bosom. "I don't know what possessed Lord Knightsbridge to invite such a person to my dear Penelope's wedding. It's all I could do not to swoon when I saw him in the chapel."
"Why?" Meg asked flippantly. "Is he in trade?"
"No, dear." Lady Farvendale fixed serious gray eyes on Meg's face. "He's a murderer."
"Oh." Meg blinked. "Well, I guess he wins after
Excerpted from A Necessary Bride by Deborah Mullins. Copyright © 2003 by Deborah Mullins. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.