Your presence is requested at a wedding deception.
After orchestrating a scandalous high-society ruse, Lady Jeannette Brantford is banished from her family’s estate in England and sent to live with boring elderly cousins in the Irish countryside. But Jeannette’s exile is surprisingly eventful. En route to her dreaded destination, she encounters Darragh O’Brien, a devilishly handsome architect who transforms Jeannette’s punishment into a delicious whirlwind of wits, words, and undeniable passion.
Although no less than a duke could satisfy a lady of her status, Jeannette is unable to extinguish the burning desire she has for Darragh’s smoldering looks and sizzling kisses. Little does she know, her dashing Irishman is no commoner. He’s the eleventh Earl of Mulholland–and he’s thoroughly enjoying the irresistible game of hard-to-get. But before he reveals his true identity, a little temptation and trickery are in order to teach his fair lady a lesson or two about love.
USA Today Bestseller, debuting at #66 and spending two weeks in the top 150 bestselling books.
Third Place Winner of the 2007 Romance Writers Ink’s More Than Magic Contest for Best Historical Romance.
“As sweet and delicious as a Godiva chocolate.” ——Romantic Times Bookclub
“Top 10 list! This historical romance goes in my keeper collection. Fantastic!” –—Tammie Ard, Fresh Fiction
Ireland, June 1817
Lady Jeannette Rose Brantford gently blew her nose on her handkerchief. Neatly refolding the silk square with its pretty row of embroidered lily of the valley, she dabbed at the fresh pair of tears that slid down her cheeks.
I really need to stop crying, she told herself. This unremitting misery simply has to cease.
On the sea voyage over, she’d thought she had her emotions firmly under control. Resigned, as it were, to her ignominious fate. But this morning when the coach set off on the overland journey to her cousins’ estate, the reality of her situation had crashed upon her like one of the great boulders that lay scattered around the wild Irish countryside.
How could my parents have done this to me? she wailed to herself. How could they have been cruel enough to exile her to this godforsaken wilderness? Dear heavens, even Scotland would have been preferable. At least its land mass had the good sense to still be attached to Mother England. Scotland would have been a long carriage ride from home, but in Ireland, she was separated by an entire sea!
Yet Mama and Papa had remained adamant in their decision to send her here. And for the first time in her twenty-one years, she’d been unable to wheedle or cajole or cry her way into persuading them to change their minds.
She didn’t even have her long-time lady’s maid, Jacobs, to offer her comfort and consolation in her time of need. Just because she had told Jacobs a little fib about her identity when she and her twin sister, Violet, had decided to exchange places last summer was no cause for desertion. And just because Jeannette’s parents were punishing her for the scandal with this intolerable banishment to Ireland was no reason for Jacob’s to seek out a new post. A loyal servant would have been eager to follow her mistress into exile!
Jeannette wiped away another tear and gazed across the coach at her new maid, Betsy. Despite being a perfectly sweet, pleasant girl, Betsy was a stranger. Not only that, she was woefully inexperienced, still learning about the proper care of clothing and dressing hair and recognizing the latest fashions. Jacobs had known it all.
Oh well, she thought, training Betsy would give her new life purpose. At the reminder of her new life, tears welled again into her eyes.
Alone. Oh, she was so dreadfully alone.
Abruptly, the coach jerked to a tooth rattling halt. She slid forward and nearly toppled to the floor in a cloud of skirts.
Betsy caught her; or rather they caught each other, and slowly settled themselves back into their seats.
“Good heavens, what was that?” Jeannette straightened her hat, barely able to see with the brim half covering her eyes.
“It felt like we hit something, my lady.” Betsy twisted to peer out the small window at the gloomy landscape beyond. “I hope we weren’t in no accident.”
The coach swayed as the coachman and footmen jumped to the ground, the low rumble of male voices filling the air.
Jeannette gripped her handkerchief inside her palm. Drat it, what now? As if things weren’t bad enough already.
A minute later, the coachman’s wizened face and sloped shoulders appeared at the window. “I’m sorry, milady, but it appears we’re stuck.”
Jeannette’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean? Stuck?”
“’Tis the weather, my lady. All the rain of late has turned the road back to bog.”
Bog? As in big-wheel-sucking-muddy-hole kind of bog? A wail rose into her throat. She swallowed the cry and firmed her lower lip, refusing to let it so much as quiver.
“Jem and Samuel and me’ll keep trying,” the coachman continued, “but it may be a while afore we’re on our way. Perhaps you’d like to step out while we . . .”
She shot him an appalled look, so appalled obviously that his words trailed abruptly into silence.
What was wrong with the man? she wondered. Was he daft? Or blind perhaps? Could he not see her beautiful Naccarat traveling dress? The shade bright and pretty as a perfect tangerine. Or the stylish kid leather half-boots she’d had dyed especially to match prior to her departure from London? Obviously he had no common sense, nor any appreciation of the latest styles. But mayhap she was being too hard on him, since, after all, what did any man really know about ladies’ fashion.
“Step out to where? Into that mud?” She gave her head a vigorous shake. “I shall wait right where I am.”
“It may get a might rough once we start pushing, my lady. There’s your safety to consider.”
“Don’t worry about my safety. I shall be fine in the coach. If you need to lighten the load, however, you have my leave to remove my trunks. But please be sure not to set them into the mud. I shall be most distressed if they are begrimed or damaged in any manner.” She waved a gloved hand. “And Betsy may step down if she wishes.”
Betsy looked uncertain. “Are you sure, my lady? I don’t think I ought to leave you.”
“It’s fine, Betsy. There is nothing you can do here anyway, so go with John.”
Besides, Jeannette moaned to herself, it will be nothing new, since I am well used to being deserted these days.
The gray-haired man fixed a pair of kindly eyes on the servant girl. “Best you come with me. I’ll see ye to a safe spot.”
Once Betsy was lifted free of the coach and the worst of the mud, the barouche’s door was firmly relatched. The servants set about unloading the baggage, then began the grueling task of trying to dislodge the vehicle’s trapped wheels.
A full half hour passed with no success. Jeannette stubbornly kept her seat, faintly queasy from the vigorous, periodic rocking of the coach as the men and horses strained to force the carriage out of its hole. From the exclamations of annoyed disgust that floated on the air, puncturing the rustic silence, she gathered their attempts had done nothing but sink the wheels even deeper into the mire.
Withdrawing a fresh handkerchief from her reticule, she patted the perspiration from her forehead. Blazing from above, the sun had burned off the clouds but was doing little to dry the muddy morass around her. Afternoon heat ripened the air, turning it sticky with a humidity that was unusual for these parts even in mid-summer, or so she had been informed.
At least she wasn’t crying anymore. A blessing since it wouldn’t do to arrive at her cousins’ house——assuming she ever did arrive——looking bloated and puffy, her eyes damp and red-rimmed. It was humiliating enough knowing what her cousins must think of her banishment. A far worse ignominy to greet them looking anything but her best.
A fly buzzed into the coach, fat and black and repugnant.
Jeannette’s lip curled with distaste. She shooed at the insect with her handkerchief, hoping it would fly out the opposite window. Instead it turned and raced straight for her head. She let out a sharp squeal and batted at it again.
Buzzing past her nose, it landed on the window frame, its transparent wings glinting in the brilliant sunlight. The insect strolled casually along the painted wooden sill on tensile, hair-thin legs.
With equal nonchalance, Jeannette reached for her fan. She waited, running an assessing thumb over the fine gilded ivory side guard. As soon as the creature paused, Jeannette brought her fan down with an audible thwap.
In a single instant, the big black bug became a big black blob. Gratified by her small victory, she inspected her fan, hoping she had not damaged the delicate staves, since the fan had always been one of her favorites.
Catching a fresh glimpse of the squashed insect, her lips twisted in revulsion before quickly flicking the carcass out of her sight.
“You’ve a deadly aim, lass,” remarked a mellow male voice, the lilting cadence as rich and lyrical as an Irish ballad. “He didn’t stand a chance, that fly. Are you as handy with a real weapon?”
Startled, she turned her head to find a stranger peering in at her through the opposite window, one strong forearm propped at an impertinent angle atop the frame.
How long had he been standing there? she wondered. Long enough obviously to witness the encounter between her and the fly.
The man was tall and sinewy with close-cropped, wavy dark chestnut hair, fair skin and penetrating eyes of the bluest blue, vivid as gentians at peak bloom. They twinkled at her, those eyes, the man making no effort to conceal his roguish interest. His lips curved upward in silent, unconcealed humor.
The description popped unbidden and unwanted into her mind, his appeal impossible to deny. Her heart flipped then flopped inside her chest, breasts rising and falling beneath the material of her bodice in sudden breathless movement.
She struggled against the involuntary response, forcing herself to notice on closer observation that his features were not precisely perfect. His forehead square and rather ordinary. His nose a bit long, a tad hawkish. His chin blunt and far too stubborn for comfort. His lips a little on the slender side.
Yet when viewed as a whole, his countenance made an undeniably pleasing package, one to which no sane woman could claim indifference. And when coupled with the magnetism that radiated off him in almost visible waves, he looked rather like sin brought to life.
And a sin it was, she mused on a regretful sigh, that he was clearly not a gentleman. His coarse, unfashionable attire——plain linen shirt, neckerchief and rough tan coat——betraying his plebeian origins along with his obvious lack of manners before a lady. One had only to look at him to know the truth as he leaned against her coach door like some ruffian or thief.
She stiffened at the idea, abruptly realizing that’s exactly what he might be. Well, if he was there to rob her, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of showing fear. She might burst into tears on occasion but she had never been a vaporish milk and water miss. Never one of the frail sort given to wailing for her smelling salts at the faintest hint of distress.
“I am well able to defend myself,” she declared in a resilient tone, “if that is what you are asking. Be aware I would have no difficulty putting a bullet through you should circumstances require.”
What a fib, she mused, deciding it wisest not to mention the fact that she had never fired a gun in her life and had no pistol with her here inside the coach. The coachman was the one with the weapon.
Where was he anyway? She hoped he and the others weren’t, quite literally, tied up.
Surprise brightened the rogue’s eyes. “And why would you think you’ve cause to shoot me?”
“What else am I to imagine when a strange man accosts me in my own carriage?”
“Perhaps you might assume he’s here to help.”
“Help with what? Himself to my belongings?”
His eyes narrowed, glinting with a dangerous combination of irritation and amusement. “You’ve a suspicious mind, lass, painting me immediately as a thief.” He leaned closer, his voice growing faintly husky. “Assuming I were a thief, what is it you possess that I might find of value?”
Her lips parted involuntarily, alarm and something far more treacherous quickening her blood. “I have my clothes and a few jewels, nothing more. If you want them they are in the trunks outside.”
“If I were of a mind to want such things, I’d have them already.” His eyes locked with her own, momentarily holding her prisoner before his gaze lowered slowly to her mouth. “No, there’s only one thing I’m craving . . .”
Her breath caught in her lungs as he paused, leaving his sentence tantalizingly, frustratingly unfinished. Did he want her? she wondered. Did he intend to force his way inside her carriage and steal far more than belongings, but kisses instead, and maybe other intimacies as well? Given the circumstances, she ought to be screaming her lungs out, ought to be terrified beyond measure. Instead she could only wait with her heart thundering in her ears for him to continue.
“Yes?” she prompted on a near whisper. “What is it you crave?”
The corner of his lips curved upward. “You, lass, hauling your fine backside out of this coach so your men and I can free it from the muck.”
A long moment of incomprehension passed as his meaning gradually sank in. Surely she could not have heard him right? Had he actually told her to haul her backside out of the coach?
Her mouth dropped open, her shoulders and spine turning stiff.
Why the gall of the man! Never in her entire life had she been spoken to in such a disgraceful, disrespectful manner. Just who did he think he was?
“And what is your name, fellow?”
“Oh, my pardon for not introducing myself sooner,” he said, straightening to his full, impressive height. He touched a pair of fingers to his forehead. “Darragh O’Brien at your service.”
“Darr-ah?” She crinkled her brow. “Rather an odd-sounding name.”
He frowned back. “’Tisn’t odd, ‘tis Irish. Which you’d know if you hadn’t just made the crossing over from England.”
“And how can you tell that?”
“Well, you haven’t a sign on your forehead but you might as well since it’s plain as the nose on your pretty face that you’re English and new to this land.”
He could discern all that from a couple minutes’ conversation, could he? Well, at least he had the grace to offer her a small compliment even if it was wrapped around a criticism.
“Now then, lass, you know my name, so what’s yours? And where is it you’re bound? Your men didn’t say.”
“Nor should they have since my plans are really none of your affair, most particularly if you are indeed some sort of rogue.”
“Ah, a rogue, am I now? No longer a thief?”
“That remains to be seen.”
He barked out a laugh. “You’ve got a wicked tongue in your head. One that could slice a brigand to the bone and leave him fleeing in terror.”
“If that is true,” she asked with a teasing half smile, “then why are you still here?”
He flashed her an irreverent grin, obviously amused by her words. “Well now, I’ve never been one to run from danger. And I don’t mind dipping my toe into an interesting spot of trouble when I chance upon one every now and again.”
Up went her eyebrow at his salvo. Was he implying that she was just such a spot of trouble? Come to think of it, maybe she was at that.
“I stopped to offer my help as I tried to tell you before,” he explained. “I was riding past when I noticed the sorry state of your vehicle. Thought you and your men could do with an extra hand.”
His words reminded her of her servants’ conspicuous absence, some of her earlier suspicions returning. “And where exactly are my men?”
“Right there.” He gestured with a hand. “Where they’ve been all this while.”
She leaned forward and shifted on the seat, then looked over her shoulder through the window. And there they were, all four of them——coachman, two footmen and her maid——grouped around her luggage on a patch of dry road. She thought they resembled castaways on a small, deserted island, looking hot, bored and in absolutely no fear for their lives.
“Satisfied?” he questioned.
Clicking her tongue with a barely audible tsk, she settled back into her seat.
“Now then, I’ve shared my name. What might yours be, lass?” He leaned in again, resting both muscled forearms along the windowsill.
“My name is Jeannette Rose Brantford. Lady Jeannette Rose Brantford, not lass. I would prefer you do not refer to me in such familiar terms again.”
His smile broadened at her lofty reply, his vivid eyes twinkling with a boldness that made her heart squeeze out an extra beat.
“Lady Brantford, is it?” he drawled. “And where would your lord be, then, this husband of yours? Has he sent you out traveling on your own?”
“I am presently on my way to my cousins’ estate north of Waterford near some village called Inis . . . Inis . . .” She broke off, racking her mind and drawing a complete blank. “Oh, fiddlesticks, I can’t remember now. It’s Inis-something-or-other.”
“Inistioge, do you mean?” he suggested.
“Yes, I believe that is it. Do you know the place?”
“Aye, I know it well.”
Assuming he was not a rogue——though she still had her doubts on that subject——she supposed he might be a decent sort. A local farmer or some such, a freeholder mayhap or possibly a merchant. Although she couldn’t imagine Darragh O’Brien serving anyone, not with that brash, ungoverned attitude of his.
If he knew the village near her cousins’ home though, perhaps she hadn’t too much farther to travel. Heaven knows she longed to arrive at her destination so she could climb down from this coach and shake out her skirts.
“I am to stay with my cousins there,” she said. “And though, again, it isn’t actually any of your concern, my title is one of birth, not marriage. I am presently unwed.”
The gleam in his expressive eyes deepened. “Are you not, lass? I always knew Englishmen were fools but I didn’t know they were blind into the bargain.”
A renewed ripple of awareness quivered in her middle. She buried it with a stern inner rebuke, reminding herself that no matter how attractive he might be, O’Brien was not the kind of man with whom a lady of her rank would consort.
“I believe I told you not to address me by the term lass,” she said, her tone too breathless to sound much like a scold.
“Aye, and so you did.” He grinned at her, visibly unrepentant. “Lass.”
Then he did the most astonishing thing——he winked at her. An audacious, irreverent wink that sent a flood of warmth rushing through her veins like the unleashing of a rain-swollen dam after a heavy storm.
If she’d been given to blushing, the way her identical twin sister was, she’d be stained scarlet as a poppy now. But thankfully blushing at every passing remark was one of the rare physical traits she and her sister, Violet, did not share.
The summer heat, she concluded, that was the cause for her untoward reaction. The steamy, unseasonable weather must be affecting her already overburdened senses. If she were back in London, she wouldn’t have given him so much as a second look. Well, maybe a second, but not a third.
“Come along with you then,” O’Brien declared in a no nonsense tone. “We’ve talked long enough and I need to get you out of this coach.”
“Oh, I’m not getting out. Perhaps my coachman didn’t mention it, but I have already had this discussion with him. We agreed that I would remain precisely where I am until the barouche can be set on its way.”
O’Brien shook his head. “I’m afraid you’ll have to step out, unless you’ve a wish to start living inside this vehicle. In case you didn’t know, the coach is muck-mired up to its wheels and your men can’t push it properly with you inside.”
“If it’s my safety you are concerned about, do not be. I shall be fine.”
A bit queasy mayhap, but fine.
“It’s more than your safety, though that is a concern. There’s the matter of your weight.”
“What about my weight!” Her eyebrows jerked high.
With a bold, assessing gaze, he scanned the length of her body, from the brim of her hat to the tips of her half-boots. “I’m not implying you’re fat or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking. You’ve a fine womanly figure, but even a few stone can make the difference between lifting this coach out of its hole or sinking it deeper.”
She sat, momentarily speechless, his rudeness beyond measure. Imagine discussing her weight and her figure in nearly the same breath! Why, a gentleman would never dare. But then this man was no gentleman. He was a barbarian. From his tone he might have been discussing farm animals that needed to be shifted from one pen to another.
A long moment passed before he continued. “Of course, if you’d rather, you can stay here while I ride on. I’ll carry word to your cousins to let them know you’re in need of help. I don’t expect it’ll take above four or five hours to set you on your way again.”
Four or five hours! She couldn’t stay in this coach that long. Maybe he was exaggerating, using subterfuge to lure her out of the vehicle. But what if he wasn’t? What if her insistence upon remaining inside the barouche did make the difference between traveling onward or remaining stranded? Why in four or five hours it would be dark!
She shivered at the thought. God only knows what sort of dreadful creatures might lurk in the vicinity, ready to creep from their hiding places after nightfall. There could be wolves——did Ireland have wolves?——or some other equally dangerous beasts. Hungry beasts who might not mind nibbling on a young lady.
Deliberately she kept her voice from quavering, trying one last argument. “If all this is true, why are you here telling me and not my coachman? I should think if things were so dire, he would be delivering the news himself.”
“He was gathering up the nerve to tell you, as I understand it, when I happened along. He didn’t like bearing the bad news, so I offered to deliver it myself.”
She peered again at the surrounding ocean of mud. “But where would I wait? Surely you can’t expect me to sit atop my luggage in the middle of this bog while the sun toasts me to a crisp.”
The humorous gleam returned to his gaze. “Don’t fret. There must be a spot of shade somewhere hereabouts. I’m sure we’ll find one that suits.”
She sincerely doubted it, but what choice did she have? Either she vacate the coach or risk still being here, virtually alone and unprotected, come eventide.
O’Brien shot her a sympathetic look, clearly aware of her dilemma and the internal war she waged. Opening the barouche door, he stepped forward. “Come along and save your stubbornness for another day. You and I both know the quicker we get you out of this coach, the quicker you’ll be on your way.”
“Has anyone ever informed you that you are impertinent?” Grudgingly, she climbed to her feet.
He chuckled. “A time or two, lass. A time or two. Now gather whatever it is you need and let us go.“
She hesitated for a long, indecisive moment, then bent to retrieve her reticule where it lay on the coach seat. With it barely in hand, he reached inside and whisked her up into his arms. Shrieking, she almost dropped her purse as he swung her clear of the coach, his strength and balance the only things separating her from harm’s way.
He cradled her against his solid chest, carrying her as though she weighed no more than a feather, despite his earlier remarks to the contrary. His nearness washed over her, engulfing her, surrounding her, the scent of fresh air and horses teasing her nostrils along with something else, something indescribably, deliciously male.
Surreptitiously she tilted her head to catch a deeper whiff, the illusive fragrance uniquely his own, she realized. She closed her eyes and for the briefest second considered pressing her nose against his neck. Instead, she held herself rigid in his arms, distressingly aware of the thick brown ooze that encircled them like a slick, squishy sea.
“Don’t you dare drop me,” she admonished, catching up the edges of her skirts to keep them from falling into the mire.
Methodically he slogged forward, mud slurping in noisy protest against his tall boots as nature fought to maintain its tenacious grip upon him. They were half way across to the oasis where the servants anxiously waited and watched, when O’Brien teetered, his knees dipping precipitously downward for a sudden heart-stopping instant. She screamed and wrapped her arms around his neck, unprepared for the plunge into the tepid muck below.
But just as quickly as O’Brien faltered, he recovered, his feet as steady as if he’d never wavered at all.
Her heart threatened to thunder out her breast, her throat dry and tight. An instant passed as the truth slowly dawned. A glance at the wide, wicked, totally unapologetic grin on his face confirmed her conclusion.
“You beast.” She cuffed him on the shoulder. “You did that deliberately.”
“Oh, aye. I thought you could use a bit of jollying. You scream all high and funny like a girl, did you know that?”
“I am a girl and that was not funny.” Or it wouldn’t have been if he’d miscalculated and actually dropped her. She tightened her hold.
He laughed again.
If only he knew who she was, he wouldn’t laugh or taunt her. Back in England, before the scandal, she’d been used to gentlemen hurrying to do her bidding. Wealthy, refined men, who catered to her slightest wish, who fought one another for a chance to satisfy her most fleeting desire. She’d been the Ton’s Incomparable for the past two Seasons. And she would be again, she vowed, once her parents came to their senses. It wouldn’t be long before Mama missed her and Papa’s temper cooled. Soon the pair of them would realize what a horrible mistake they’d made sending their beloved daughter away to this rustic frontier.
Until then she supposed she would be forced to endure unspeakable indignities such as being carried about by disrespectful, provincial Irishmen like O’Brien.
Her servants stood in a mute cluster, their eyes round as planets when O’Brien set her on her feet amongst them. Betsy hurried instantly to her side, an act for which Jeannette was silently grateful, and made a shy attempt to pluck Jeannette’s reticule from her grasp.
O’Brien moved to turn away.
“Are you leaving me?” Jeannette asked.
He paused, swung back. “Aye. I’ve got to help your men with the coach.”
“But you promised me shade and a comfortable place to sit.”
He planted broad hands on his narrow hips and made a show of scanning the area, then he locked his gaze with hers. “I’m sorry to say, but the only shade to be had is over in that little glade just there.” He pointed to the spot, a small cluster of silver fir trees standing several yards distant. “And I suspect the ground beneath those trees is just as muddy as the ground here. If you’ve a parasol I’d have your maid open it out for you to keep you from the sun.
“As for the comfortable seat, I never promised you such as I recall. If I were you, I’d sit on your strongest traveling case. Otherwise, you’ve a fine pair of feet on which to stand. After all the hours you’ve been in that coach, I’d think you’d be craving a good stretch by now.”
With that he turned, strode back toward the foundered barouche. One by one, her men stole away after him, the warm summer stillness broken only by the undulating hum of insects singing in the fields.
Jeannette stood immobile, stunned to speechlessness. She didn’t know whether to stamp her feet in frustration or burst into another noisy bout of tears.
But she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her so upset.
And to think she’d considered him attractive.
Aware no one was looking, she stuck her tongue out at O’Brien’s turned back. Feeling slightly better for her childish act of retaliation, she turned to find a seat.
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