Adrienne Basso's TO PROTECT AN HEIRESS
Adrienne Basso's TO PROTECT AN HEIRESS
Adrienne Basso crafts a spellbinding tale of suspense, mystery, and unexpected passion among the elegant salons and ballrooms of Regency England. . .
TO PROTECT AN HEIRESS
Publisher: Zebra Books
Publication Date: December 12, 2012 (ebook)
Publication Date: July 1, 2002 (mass market paperback)
Blessed with beauty, fortune, and noble birth, Lady Meredith Barrington puzzles the ton by choosing to remain single. Then a roguish bet placed by her younger brothers leads Meredith to impulsively flirt with—and boldly kiss—the handsome, brooding Marquess of Dardington. A threatened scandal results in a hasty wedding. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, and Meredith is determined to maintain her usual independent ways. Then an apparent accident nearly takes her life, and Meredith, shaken, finds herself turning again and again to her husband, for comfort, for reassurance. . .and more.
Trevor Morley, Marquess of Dardington, is less than pleased when he's forced to wed, and vows to avoid his lovely wife—no matter how tempting that soul-stirring kiss in the garden. But when the ton is rocked by a string of savage murders, Trevor comes to realize that the killer has targeted Meredith. He ensures that he's always at her side. . .day and night. Their intimacy ignites a fiery passion between them, and both are stunned to discover that what began in rueful obedience to Society's dictates has become a love match. But can Trevor protect the woman he cherishes from deadly harm?
London, England Early Summer, 1802
The whispers were not whispers at all, for they could be heard clearly among the fashionable guests preening about the lawn at the Duchess of Suttington's afternoon garden party.
"She might be worth nearly five thousand a year, but the Earl of Portersville said he wouldn't take her if she were a royal princess — with ten thousand a year. Too much spirit and opinion for a proper young lady," a portly matron declared vehemently.
Her female companion nodded enthusiastically. "I heard she actually had the audacity to correct the Duke of Hastings last week when he was showing her the latest acquisition to his art collection. Claimed it was most likely a fake and that he had been swindled. Utterly shocking!" Eighteen-year-old Lady Meredith Barrington, the subject of this disapproving conversation, sat only a few feet away. She tossed her blond curls regally over her left shoulder with feigned indifference, determined these old biddies would not have the pleasure of seeing how deeply their criticism wounded her.
Their conversation continued, and Meredith forced herself to ignore the words, to treat them as only irritating sounds, not spiteful slander. She felt the onset of a numbing headache and longed to retreat inside the castle, away from the guests, yet she stood her ground, trembling but calm.
"What else can one expect from the Earl of Stafford's daughter? He has always been far too scholarly and outspoken for my tastes. One can learn to excuse that sort of behavior in a man, but certainly not in a young woman."
Meredith's concentration slipped as she comprehended the last statement. Her first inclination was to turn and snap at these catty gossipmongers, but that sort of scandalous behavior would only lend credence to their lies.
Dear Lord, would they never leave her alone? Was it not enough that she was considered unacceptable, branded a bluestocking because she had the effrontery to offer up an intelligent opinion that often differed from that of her male escort? Must she constantly be maligned also by the members of her own sex, too?
Deep within her, Meredith seethed with the injustice of it all. Her father's differences were labeled eccentric, while hers were considered unacceptable. And, yes, she had indeed told the Duke of Hastings his Venetian goblet had most likely not been owned by Pope Pius II, since that holy man had lived and died nearly 100 years before that particular shade of green was being blown by Venetian artisans.
Meredith's reason for divulging this fact had not been to showcase her knowledge, nor to embarrass the duke, but instead to distract him. The man had cleverly managed to get her alone and was in the process of making the most improper advances toward her at the time she sputtered her revelations.
It was either wound his pride or wound his person. Meredith gritted her teeth, now regretting her decision to wound his pride. A swift kick in a most indiscreet location would certainly not have been so eagerly discussed by the duke to his cronies. Perhaps then this latest tale never would have come to light.
But the duke's unwanted advances had been deliberately left out as these two matrons recounted the episode, giving credence to the theory they had no idea what actually occurred.
In an odd way, Meredith was almost disappointed. Revealing the true nature of the duke's behavior might produce a scandal of such magnitude Meredith would be placed solidly beyond the pale and thus put an end her disastrous debut into Society.
For the simple truth was that Meredith had never been more miserable in her entire life. She had started the Season with such high expectations. As the beautiful daughter of a wealthy and noble family, she had initially been embraced by the ton. However, that acceptance quickly turned to disapproval.
And it was not a one-sided disillusionment. Meredith equally disliked the beau monde, with its rigid rules that seemed designed to exclude anyone or anything that had a slightly different view of the world. She had quickly and disappointedly learned that if one did not embrace Society in its entirety, one was systematically shunned.
"Ahh, so that is where you have gotten to," a musical female voice declared. "I've been looking everywhere for you, Lady Meredith."
Meredith lifted her head and smiled. Lavinia Morely, the young Marchioness of Dardington, came gliding gracefully toward her, arms outstretched in greeting.
"How lovely to see you," Meredith said truthfully as she embraced her friend. "I was unsure if you would be in attendance this afternoon."
"Oh, we would not miss today's little gathering," Lavinia replied as she returned the hug. "The Duchess of Suttington is my dearest Trevor's godmother. She would be crushed if we did not make an appearance at her afternoon soiree. The moment we arrived she spirited Trevor away to discuss a matter she proclaimed to be of utmost importance.
"I have a feeling it has something to do with the latest horses she purchased at Tattersall's. The duchess really is horse mad, yet she lacks the good sense to trust her own judgment. Poor Trevor. I promised to go and rescue him if he does not reappear within the hour."
"What a noble wife you are, Lavinia." Meredith clucked her tongue in mock horror. "And so very unfashionable to be seen so often in your husband's company."
Lavinia gave an exaggerated sigh. "We are quite the pair, are we not?"
"Indeed." Meredith leaned forward and whispered in her friend's ear. "You are the envy of every woman here because you have such a handsome, dashing husband who is totally besotted with you, and doesn't care in the least who knows it."
Lavinia smiled charmingly. "Well, not every woman envies me. I daresay your mother enjoys equal devotion from your father. And they have been married nearly twenty years."
Meredith lowered her chin. "Yes, my parents are unusual in many regards, including the loving state of their marriage. Something I believe the ton fails to understand at all."
"That is because loyalty, devotion, and true love are foreign ideals to most of them." Lavinia cocked her head, her rich brown eyes alight with suspicion. "That scowl marring your lovely brow has me worried. I suspect it has nothing to do with your parents. Don't tell me the Duke of Hastings has had the audacity to approach you again?"
Meredith's head swung around sharply. "Is he here?"
Meredith choked down a laugh. "I wouldn't know. I've been here nearly two hours and only a handful of people have actually spoken to me — though I cannot help but notice they have spoken a great deal about me."
"Vicious swine," Lavinia muttered. She linked her arm through Meredith's. "How quick they are to sit in judgment of others, having no qualms at finding fault. Yet all the while they are busy skulking about searching for juicy tidbits of gossip. It can be quite maddening."
Just then the two gossiping ladies who had so enjoyed discussing Meredith called out a greeting to the marchioness and gestured for Lavinia to join them. Meredith was pointedly excluded from the invitation.
The young marchioness' eyes narrowed on the pair and she favored them with a barely perceptible nod. Meredith felt a rush of gratitude as the portly matron's smile slipped a fraction.
Lavinia tightened her grip on Meredith's arm. "Come along now, Merry. 'Tis time we mingled."
Meredith smiled. There was comfort in that strong grip, and genuine friendship. She once again said a short, silent prayer of thanks to whatever God had seen fit to bring her and Lavinia together. For Meredith, the only bright spot in this otherwise dismal coming out Season had been her newly formed friendship with Lavinia.
It had been an unexpected delight to find such an open and honest young woman who was happy to offer her friendship for no other reason than she liked Meredith.
The two woman circulated among the guests, chatting about the weather, the lovely party, and the latest fashions. With Lavinia by her side, Meredith was quickly acknowledged, though not warmly greeted. Not that she really cared.
Within minutes she was bored to tears by the dull and tedious topics of conversation, and it took a great effort to keep a pleasant expression plastered on her face. She suspected Lavinia was equally bored, but the young marchioness somehow managed to display interest in the discussions without appearing fawning or condescending.
Meredith admired her friend's social skills and poise. At times it was difficult to remember that Lavinia was only a few years older than she. Perhaps the security of a loving husband who clearly demonstrated anything his wife did was exceptional had contributed to Lavinia's remarkable self-confidence.
"What is your response, Lady Meredith?"
Meredith squinted noncommittally at the small, squat woman who addressed her, fearing to make any sort of remark. She had been woolgathering for the majority of the conversation and had no earthly idea what the Countess of Ridgefield had asked.
Trying to play it safe, she muttered an affirmative, sympathetic remark.
Lady Olivia Dermott raised a gold-rimmed quizzing glass and looked disdainfully at Meredith. "That is all you have to say about the matter? I find that a rather shocking reaction from a refined young woman."
"Nonsense," Lavinia interrupted icily. "That is a logical, honest reaction. If you will excuse us, ladies."
Meredith quickly rallied her senses. With the boldness she instinctively knew was required, she followed Lavinia's lead, turned on her heel, and walked away. Meredith could practically feel the annoyance sweep through her friend at each step they took.
"Spiteful witch," Lavinia muttered beneath her breath, when they had gained a fair distance. "She's jealous because she's heard Julian Wingate offered for you. She's been trying all season to bring him up to scratch for that mousy daughter of hers and having no success."
"Is that what they were discussing? Julian Wingate?" Meredith was almost glad she had been ignoring the conversation. "Lady Olivia is more than welcome to him. For the life of me, I cannot understand his great popularity. I find him boorish, conceited, and possessing of a negative opinion about everything. Except himself. It took every ounce of willpower not to run screaming from the room each time he came calling for me."
"Most women find his charm nearly irresistible." Lavinia struck a pose of contemplation, then grinned. "'Tis rather remarkable that you aren't considered a great social success, yet you have managed to garner three proposals of marriage."
"Four, if you include Wingate. But I am not so foolish to think anything but my vast fortune has attracted their attention." Meredith smiled despite her grim words. "There are still a few more weeks left until everyone retires to the country, or follows the Regent to Brighton. I fear that number will increase before I can escape."
"We should make a game of it and see how many proposals you can accumulate," Lavinia said smoothly.
Meredith's spine went stiff. She turned to her friend in astonishment, but the mischievous twinkle in Lavinia's eyes let Meredith know she was only jesting. "I suppose if I managed an even half dozen, that would put a flea in Lady Olivia's ear."
The two women exchanged a sly glance, then burst into merry laughter.
"We need to find you someone like my Trevor," Lavinia declared when the laughter subsided. "The problem is, there is simply no other man in England quite so perfect."
As if somehow aware he was the topic of their conversation, the Marquess of Dardington appeared within the scope of their vision. Meredith spotted him first, but she knew it would be only a moment before Lavinia saw him, too.
The marquess was conversing with several gentlemen of various ages. Though not the tallest of the group, he was the one Meredith's eyes were drawn toward. Golden-haired, with a fine sharp profile, broad shoulders and an undefinable dash of charisma, he enraptured those around him.
He was dressed more conservatively than his companions, in buff breeches, a patterned waistcoat, and jacket of navy superfine, yet it wasn't his imposing handsomeness Meredith found so extraordinary. There was an underlying strength of character in Trevor Morely that had always intrigued her.
His mannerism, his attitude, his conversation all indicated he was a man who could be depended upon in times of crisis. Having grown up with a father who adored her but was hardly known for his sense of responsibility, Meredith found this a most admirable quality.
That, along with his obvious love for and devotion to his wife, made him one of the few men in Society with whom Meredith was truly interested in forming a friendship.
The sound was a mere whisper, but the emotion in that single name told Meredith Lavinia had indeed seen her husband. Meredith knew it was impossible, but somehow the marquess either heard or sensed his wife's voice, for his head turned away from his male companion and toward Lavinia.
His attention grew fixed, centered completely on his lovely wife, though he stood several yards away. Meredith watched in fascination as the couple's eyes first met and then held. For an instant, something dark and intense burned in the marquess's gaze.
Blushing, Lavinia lowered her head.
Meredith abruptly glanced away. The emotion and longing on the marquess's face had startled her, and she somehow felt as though she had intruded on a very personal, private moment — which was rather ridiculous, considering the number of people surrounding them.
Though she had witnessed it many times in the past, Meredith was once again struck by the closeness the pair radiated, even when standing so physically far apart.
Still, a slow smile spread over Meredith's face. She might not entirely understand their relationship, but it made her happy to see the lightness that seemed to lift Lavinia's heart whenever she saw her husband.
"My goodness, I just felt you shiver." Meredith reached out and grasped her friend's arm. "Are you cold, Lavinia?"
"Not at all." A host of emotions crossed her face.
" 'Tis Trevor. My husband can reduce me to a puddle of shivers with a single glance. Isn't it marvelous?"
Truthfully, Meredith thought that sounded rather ridiculous, but she wasn't about to hurt her dear friend's feelings by saying anything. "Actually it sounds rather uncomfortable. Here, take my shawl. 'Tis a warm afternoon, but there is a bit of a breeze. Those short puffs of sleeves on your lavender gown are charming, but offer no protection."
"I'm really not cold," Lavinia protested, refusing the garment.
Meredith sighed, but did not press the matter. She heard Lavinia catch her breath as a second shiver went through the marchioness. Meredith turned her head, scanning the faces of those who ambled by, pretending to be completely absorbed by the strolling crowd. It seemed a better alternative than watching the woman at her side turn into a shivering puddle of lust.
However, at the marchioness's third shiver, Meredith found she could no longer ignore the situation.
"All right, I'll take your shawl."
"We both know that is not the cause of your shuddering," Meredith retorted, her eyes narrowing.
Lavinia fixed her with an innocent look. "Nevertheless, it would not hurt to take special care of myself. Trevor is most solicitous of my health these days."
"Have you been ill?"
"Goodness, no." Lavinia waved away Meredith's obvious concern as she adjusted the distinctively patterned silk shawl around her shoulders. "I have never felt better. Nor been happier." The marchioness grinned slyly. "It appears I am in an interesting condition."
Meredith frowned. "Interesting?"
Meredith's frown deepened, as Lavinia stared expectantly at her. She knew the marchioness was trying to tell her something, and by the look of her it was a fairly significant something. Yet Meredith was completely puzzled.
After a few moments of silence, Lavinia rolled her eyes good-naturedly and laughed. "For an intelligent, quick-witted young woman, you can be a real slowtop at times." The marchioness pressed her hand gently against her stomach. "An interesting condition."
Meredith's jaw dropped. "Good lord!"
A dreamy expression flitted across Lavinia's lovely features. "Isn't it miraculous? A baby. Trevor and I have been congratulating ourselves all week for being such a clever pair." She sighed deeply. "We haven't told anyone yet. It has been our own wonderful secret. But we are dining tonight with Trevor's father and can hardly wait to inform the duke."
Meredith's throat tightened. "I am honored you saw fit to share this news with me."
Lavinia tilted her head in surprise. "You are my dearest friend. Of course I would share my special secret with you." The marchioness linked her arm with Meredith's as the two woman began to stroll toward a cluster of guests. "I know I can count on your discretion. While I am thrilled about my condition, I prefer not to share it with the world.
"Meredith Barrington reluctantly agrees to kiss Trevor Morely, the Marquess of Dardington, a well-known rogue, to help her two twin brothers, who have wagered that they can get a confirmed spinster to kiss a rake. The scandal resulting from Meredith's kiss, and the threat of a duel between her brothers and Trevor, pushes Meredith into accepting Trevor's offer of marriage. Complicating matters is the fact that Trevor is still mourning the death of his first wife, Lavinia, who also happened to be Meredith's best friend. At first Trevor spends most of the time trying to avoid Meredith, but when evidence surfaces that someone might be stalking his new wife, Trevor sets out to do whatever it takes to protect the woman he now loves. The sensuously detailed love scenes, undercurrent of danger, and polished writing fuel Basso's latest historical regency, which will draw fans of Amanda Quick and Nicole Jordan."—John Charles Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
When Lady Meredith Barrington's best friend is killed while wearing Merry's shawl, Merry has no idea that she herself had been the intended victim. Now, eight years later, as the result of a wager gone awry, she finds herself in a marriage of convenience to the Marquess of Dardington, widower of her murdered friend, and the target of a murderer who is stalking the women of London in Jack-the-Ripper fashion. Sensual and rather gently paced, this Regency-set historical pairs a lively, outspoken heroine who knows her own mind with a conflicted hero determined to protect her and then gives them a crafty killer to deal with and a marriage to establish all under the critical, unforgiving eyes of the ton. Although more romance than mystery, this light story will appeal to the growing number of readers who enjoy their love stories laced with a dash of suspense. —Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.