Only desperation could bring Duncan Pennethorne, the infamous Earl of Sheringford, back home after the spectacular scandal that had shocked even the jaded ton. Forced to wed in fifteen days or be cut off without a penny, Duncan chooses the one woman in London in frantic need of a husband. Quickly she issues an ultimatum: If Duncan wants her, he must woo her. And as passion slowly ignites, two people marrying for all the wrong reasons are discovering the joys of seduction - and awaiting the exquisite pleasure of what comes after..

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As she takes to the floor for the opening set with Baron Montford, her brother-in-law, neither one has yet arrived. Duncan, meanwhile, is also late arriving. The ton will not take kindly to his appearance, uninvited, at a grand ball. Besides, he has no wish whatsoever to marry.

He lingers at his club for one more drink. There was still no sign of the Marquess of Allingham. Nor, to her relief, of Crispin Dew. The music began, and Margaret curtsied with the line of ladies to a bowing Jasper in the line of gentlemen and gave herself up to the enjoyment of the intricate figures of the dance.

But halfway through the set she was distracted by the sight of a swath of scarlet at the ballroom doors and saw that it was Crispin arriving with two of the officers with whom he had been riding yesterday.

Her heart fluttered uncomfortably and sank in the direction of her slippers. There went her peace. The three of them were causing a noticeable stir among those who were not dancing. He looked about until his eyes found Margaret, and then he smiled. She might have pretended that she had not seen him, she supposed, but that would be silly. She smiled in return and was very glad she was looking her best as she danced beneath one of the chandeliers and her gold gown sparkled.

And then she felt annoyance at such a vain thought. There was still no sign of the marquess. He might not even be in London, of course. Do forgive me. It was very humiliating. A few of the dancers around them looked at her with concern. But if you need someone to plant him a facer or worse, Meg, do feel free to call upon me at any time. It would give me the greatest pleasure. I have not been embroiled in any good brawls lately. Marriage does that to a man, alas.

And it was no use pretending that she did not know what he meant. He had obviously seen Crispin too and guessed from his uniform who he was. That meant that Katherine had told him the story. How embarrassing! She was thirty years old and a spinster because the only love of her life had abandoned her and married someone else.

And all she had to do was see him again and she went stumbling over the feet of her dancing partner. The pattern of the dance separated them for a while, but Margaret replied as soon as they came together again between the lines to circle each other back to back.

What all happened years ago, he might well ask. And how would she even be able to refer to it if she had forgotten it?

Oh, how she hated this! Where had the years gone? And how had she somehow been left behind? And where was the Marquess of Allingham when she most needed him? Whatever would she say to Crispin if he talked to her later and asked where her betrothed was?

She was just going to have to tell the truth, that was all—that there was no such man, that there was no such betrothal. And she must not even add the face-saving words not yet, anyway.

She would thereby risk humiliating herself further if for some reason the marquess was not in town this year. And let her learn her lesson from this.

She would never allow herself to be goaded into telling a lie again—even the smallest of white lies. Lies could only bring one grief. And then suddenly, just before the set came to an end, there he was at last—the Marquess of Allingham, strolling through the ballroom doors, looking dearly familiar.

He stopped to look about. He had not seen her yet, Margaret realized as she circled about Jasper again and returned to her line. But that did not matter. The important thing was that he was here—and looking very distinguished indeed in his black and white evening clothes. There was a natural stateliness of manner about him. He must have seen someone else he knew and moved purposefully in that direction. I am all out of breath. But it was a delightful way to begin the evening.

I thought perhaps I had put my dancing shoes on the wrong feet or that my neckcloth was askew. It was an enormous relief to discover that it was, in fact, you they were all watching. You look outstandingly lovely tonight, Meg, as I am sure your glass informed you before you left home. At the same moment he spotted her, and his face lit up with a warm smile as he stepped away from the group he had just joined.

Lady Tindell must be very pleased. Her ball is extremely well attended, is it not? May I compliment you on your appearance? You look lovelier than ever. I arrived rather later than I would have liked, I am afraid. He waltzed well.

It amazed her now that she had not accepted his offer last year. Even then she had known that she must marry if she was not to remain a spinster for the rest of her life and be a burden upon Stephen and her sisters. And even then she had known that she could not possibly do better than marry the Marquess of Allingham, whom she liked exceedingly well. Do come and meet her. She has been a friend of mine for a number of years.

To someone else. For the moment the realization bounced off the outer layer of her consciousness and did not really penetrate—which was perhaps fortunate. Margaret smiled—brightly and warmly—and held out her right hand to Miss Milfort. Yendle and the other members of the group and inclined her head affably to them.

But you must have seen the notice of our engagement in the Morning Post, Miss Huxtable. But I heard of it, of course, and I was delighted for you. Untruths had come easily to her tongue recently. With her peripheral vision Margaret became aware of a flash of scarlet off to her right. Without even turning her head to look she knew it was Crispin and that he was making his way toward her, perhaps to ask her to dance with him, perhaps to seek an introduction to the Marquess of Allingham, who was betrothed to someone else.

The ghastly truth rushed at her. She was not engaged. She was not about to be engaged. She was thirty years old and horribly, irreparably single and unattached. And she was going to have to admit it all to Crispin, who had believed that she needed his gallantry since no other man could possibly want to offer her his company.

Her stomach clenched with distress and incipient queasiness. She could not bear to face him just yet. She really could not. She might well cast herself, weeping, into his arms. She needed time to compose herself. She needed to be alone. She did not even take the time to skirt the perimeter of the room but hurried across it, thankful that enough dancers had gathered there to prevent her from looking too conspicuous. She felt horribly conspicuous anyway. She remembered to smile.

As she approached the doors, she glanced back over her shoulder to see if Crispin was coming after her. She was in a ridiculous panic. She turned her head to face the front again, but she did so too late to stop herself from plowing into a gentleman who was standing before the doors, blocking the way. She felt for a moment as if all the breath had been knocked from her body. And then she felt a horrible embarrassment to add to her confusion and panic. She was pressed against a very solid male body from shoulders to knees, and she was being held in place there by two hands that gripped her upper arms like a vise.

She found herself gazing up into very black eyes set in a harsh, narrow, angular, dark-hued face—an almost ugly face framed by hair as dark as his eyes.


At Last Comes Love

As she takes to the floor for the opening set with Baron Montford, her brother-in-law, neither one has yet arrived. Duncan, meanwhile, is also late arriving. The ton will not take kindly to his appearance, uninvited, at a grand ball. Besides, he has no wish whatsoever to marry. He lingers at his club for one more drink. There was still no sign of the Marquess of Allingham.




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