Seventeen years ago

Chapter 1

         The ivy was slick, and it pulled too easily away from the crumbling house, but Lucas Crosse, future earl of Wolvesmead, was determined to scale the wall to reach his damsel in distress. In his mind, he was climbing a tower to rescue his princess. It wasn’t far from the truth and Lucas managed to reach Lady Diana’s window without falling to his doom. But once there, he was dismayed to discover that his princess wasn’t alone. She was trapped by the evil witch of her mother and her two sisters as they brushed her hair, soothed her nerves, and generally promised her that all would be well.

         That was his job, he thought, and he was impatient to get to it. Especially before he lost his grip and fell eighteen feet onto the shrubbery below. He was busy imaging the results of getting impaled by those hard branches when Diana reached her limit. With a harsh voice, she sent everyone away, including her mother. They scurried out like the betraying rats they were, and finally Diana was alone.

         Lucas tapped the window to get Diana’s attention, but she had dropped her head into her hands and wouldn’t look up.

         He tapped again, forcefully enough to make it a knock. That did the trick. His lady love lifted her head to glare out at the drizzly night. Thank God because he was getting chilled. She even stood to approach the window. Excellent! He leaned his face in close so that she would see him. He made sure to smile though it probably looked more like a grimace given the situation. Then she saw him.

She recoiled in horror. Her face went pale, she stumbled backwards, and her hands went to her mouth as she squeaked in alarm.

Not the reaction he expected, but what could he do to change it? He tried to slick the wet from his face. “Diana, it’s me! Lucas!”

Her brows narrowed and she peered forward. Then with gratifying speed, she hauled open the window. “What are you doing?” she gasped. “You’re wet!”

“I know,” he huffed. “Step back so I can climb in.”

Stepping back wasn’t going to be helpful. The windows throughout London were too small for this type of maneuver. Especially when he was larger than the average burglar. But he managed to wriggle himself inside though he fell on his face in an ungainly heap.

“What are you doing here?” Diana asked as she passed him a towel.

Practical. That was one of the things he loved about her. “Thanks,” he said as he wiped off his face.

“Why aren’t you in school?”

He straightened up. “Why are you marrying someone three times your age?”

She sighed and slumped over to sit on her bed. “You wouldn’t understand.”

She was a delicate woman with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a body just starting to ripen. He thought of her as a pixie or a sprite—some tiny, magical creature who had bewitched him while he wasn’t watching. He’d only met her a few months past when he’d summered with his friend next to her home. They’d shared tea and gone riding. They’d taken walks by the stream and discussed canals. And he’d left in August expecting to dance with her in the coming season, to flirt with her during musical evenings, and maybe steal a kiss or three. He’d made plans for just that happenstance and spent many hours daydreaming exactly where and how he would kiss her.

Until her father died six weeks ago and suddenly, in the depths of a cold November, he’d learned she was to be wed on the morrow. It made no sense, and he wanted to tell her that. But looking at her now, he saw that she already knew the illogic of it all. She looked as miserable as he felt, and his soul fired up with the desire to be her knight in shining armor.

He dropped to his knees before her and clasped her hands. “You mustn’t do this. How can I help you escape?”

She shook her head. “There is no escape. With Papa gone, Mama needs a man to manage things.”

“So let her marry—”

“He doesn’t want her. He wants me.”

The level of misery in her voice destroyed him. “Don’t do it,” he whispered. “They’re horrible people. His children are awful. And they’re older than you!”

“I know!” she said, her eyes welling up with misery. “They’ve already said terrible things to me.”

He looked into her blue eyes and felt his heart swell. “Marry me. Tonight. We’ll run to Scotland together.”

He watched her mouth part in surprise and saw hope spark in her eyes. But even as he waited with held breath, he watched her expression tighten. “How will we get there?”

“What?”

“To Scotland? How will we get there?”

He shrugged. “I have a horse—”

“I don’t.”

“We’ll hire one for you.”

“How? It’s the middle of the night.”

He frowned. “We’ll borrow one. I have friends.”

“And do you have money for lodging? It’s November. We can’t just sleep out in the fields.”

He tightened his grip on her hands. She was ruining the moment with her questions. Didn’t she see that? It was like being examined by an Oxford don. “We’ll figure it out along the way.”

“And what about my family? How will they survive if I disappear?”

“Your mother will have to find her own solution. It’s what mothers are supposed to do. They shouldn’t sacrifice their daughters to—”

“If there isn’t an influx of money, then my brother will have to leave school. Elliott is just a boy. And who will take care of my sisters?”

“Your mother—”

“Picked this solution.” Diana shook her head. “I can’t abandon them.”

Loyal. He couldn’t fault her for that, and frankly, he was ashamed of himself for not thinking of that sooner. “I have some money,” he began.

“Enough to keep Elliott in school?”

He winced. It wasn’t enough to keep the two of them in food beyond a month. “My parents will help us.”

Diana stared at him, her eyes sheening with tears as she clutched his fingers. “And my family? Will they help them as well?”

Doubtful. His parents hated anything they labeled “untoward.” Marrying Diana before he turned twenty would definitely qualify. It would be hard enough to get them to accept the marriage. They certainly wouldn’t aid her family, especially since it included her by-blow half-sister. Lilah changed Diana’s family from “untoward” to “regrettable,” and his mother would never touch anything that was so unseemly.

“How much money?” he asked.

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“How much money do you think it would take to free you from this marriage, to support your family, and keep Elliott in school?”

“I don’t know. Five thousand pounds per year? Something like that.”

He shuddered. Even at half that amount, he couldn’t do it. He hadn’t inherited, his allowance from his father was barely a thousand. He wanted to promise that he could manage her family’s estate, but he knew nothing of farming. In fact, he’d gone out of his way to not learn about sheep, crops, and whatnot. It just wasn’t in his nature.

“What if I brought you three thousand tomorrow morning? Would you run away with me then? It would be enough, yes? We’d figure out the rest. Would you do it?”

She swallowed, obviously torn.

“It won’t be easy,” he pressed, “but we could do it together. We’re in love, Diana. Anything is possible with love.”

He believed that. Indeed, the feeling burned hot inside him, but her eyes widened in shocked surprise. “What?” she whispered. At least that was the word he read off her lips.

“We’re in love,” he stressed. “Aren’t we? Don’t you love me?”

“You love me?” she echoed without answering his question. “I…”

She was in doubt, but he knew exactly how to change that. He surged upwards and captured her mouth with his. He teased her cold lips and slipped between them with his tongue. And while she gasped in maidenly surprise, he plundered her mouth. He thrust inside and tasted every part of her.

“Diana,” he whispered.

She clutched his shoulders in response, then drew him closer.

It was the most natural thing to press her backwards, to move over her so that he could lay her back upon her bed.

He hadn’t meant to be so ardent. He’d merely intended to kiss her doubts away. But lust surged inside him, love and desire were a potent combination. At least they were for him. Especially since she whispered his name with every kiss and her hands roamed across his shoulders and back.

But while he began to nuzzle down her throat to her breasts, she gripped him hard and held him away.

“Lucas. Lucas!”

“Yes?” He lifted his head, feeling her quick breaths as they merged with his own. He saw the pulse in her throat and meant to nibble it while need throbbed in his loins.

“Yes.”

Excellent! He pressed a quick kiss to her throat and his fingers began to tug at the fabric of her nightrail.

“Lucas, stop!”

He lifted his head. “What?”

“Do you have three thousand pounds? Right now? Do you have it?”

She was talking about money? Right now when her scent muddied his thoughts and she was already on fire in her bed?

“Do you?”

“Not just now. I have a little more than a thousand.” He’d been saving up to buy a horse. “But I can turn that into three thousand easily. I’m a good gambler, and so many people are bad at it.”

She stiffened beneath him. “Gambling? You want me to risk my family on gambling?”

“It’s true! How do you think I got a thousand?” He could see that she didn’t believe him and no wonder. What did she know of the kind of money men threw around simply because they could? “I can,” he insisted. He straightened up off her though it physically hurt to do so. “Let me prove it.”

“How?”

“I’ll come back in the morning with three thousand pounds. I swear it.” He could do it. It might be tight, but he knew of a few hells where the play was steep. “Wait for me,” he pressed. Then he paused. “And if I show you the money, will you run away with me? Will you refuse to marry him?” He touched her cheek. “Will you be mine?”

“Yes,” she said, the word barely audible. Then she straightened up and slammed her mouth to his. It was all he needed.

He plundered her mouth. And when she gripped his shoulders, he tore himself away. There was too much to do to spend it here. There would be plenty of time for this after the night’s gambling was done.

So he went to the window, frowning as he tried to figure out how to wriggle himself back outside without tumbling to his death.

“Don’t be an idiot,” she huffed. “I’ll take you down the back stairs.”

They tiptoed like giggly children down the back stairs. And when they finally reached the doorway, he hauled her close for one last kiss. Her mouth was hot, her body pliant, and he held her so tight, he lifted her off the ground.

“You have bewitched me,” he whispered as he let her go.

“Don’t fail,” she responded. “Please, God, don’t fail.”

“I won’t.”

He didn’t. He spent the night in four different gaming hells. He played upon his wet-behind-the-ears looks. He pretended to be drunk when he wasn’t. And when the players got wise, he slipped out and ran to the next one. And once, he even stole money from a drunkard who had passed out near him.

It was for a good cause, he rationalized, as he became a thief. It was for love and for Diana’s family. And when he got the last pound note clutched into his hands, he ran from the hell while his victim screamed, “You better run, boy, but it won’t help. I’ll find you tomorrow and then we’ll see.”

He felt the threat settle low in his spine as his feet pounded away. It held real danger and he knew he could never return to the hells he’d been in tonight. A man could make a lot of money in one night. He had proven that. But it had required him to be ruthless in a way that he despised. He’d taken money from friends, acquaintances, and wet-behind-the-ears idiots. It left him feeling filthy and ashamed, but he’d gotten what he wanted.

Three thousand pounds.

Wonderful, except he would never be able to do that again. The gamblers were on to him. The monied people and the thieves. He needed to get out of London immediately, which would be fine except how would he support Diana and her family in the future? How would he cover the other two thousand pounds they needed to survive? This year and then the next and the next?

He didn’t know. And he sure as hell couldn’t marry her until he had an answer. Cold logic in the morning had replaced last night’s romantic passion.

He didn’t go to her bedroom that morning. He didn’t drop on his knees and shower her with pound notes as he’d envisioned throughout the night. And he certainly didn’t stop her from dully speaking her vows to her new husband, though he stood at the back of the church and tried not to weep in despair.

Instead, he used the money to buy a commission and entered the military that very day.

That should have been the end of it. That should have put paid to any relationship between him and Diana. Until the morning, twelve years later, when her brother Elliott walked into his bedroom and said, “I need your help. Diana’s in trouble.”

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