Ivy Close, Cornwall – July 1816
She would wear the carpet through if she didn’t stop pacing. Dharma wished for the hundredth time that she’d not returned to her stepmother’s house while this silly house party was in progress.
Ivy Close, once a hunting lodge belonging to Dharma’s father, had been left to her step-mother after his passing over eighteen months ago. She knew she’d always be welcome here because Charlotte loved her almost as much as her own mother had.
That’s why Dharma found it so disagreeable that Charlotte would hold a gathering such as this. The ‘find a husband’ house party made her skin crawl. Desperate men did not make good husbands, no matter how much you wanted a child. But she couldn’t convince her stepmother of that. As she made another turn on the much trampled carpet, she caught her reflection in the mirror.
Dharma Dexter, you need to interfere. But how, she kept asking herself over and over as she chewed on her bottom lip?
The men Charlotte had invited to this house party were in attendance so that widowed Charlotte could pick a new husband. Charlotte wanted a child. And she needed a husband to have one. Poor Charlotte didn’t have many offers, despite being widowed for almost eighteen months. So her stepmother had come up with this baffling plan to invite men she knew needed to marry wealth to a house party. She’d select a husband from within these applicants. That’s what they were. They were auditioning for the role of husband and father.
Why did Lord Devlin have to be in this group of men Charlotte had invited to her ‘pick a husband’ house party’?
Dharma was best friends with Lord Devlin’s sister Rosemary, and she’d never considered him as suitable husband material for herself—until now. Charlotte saw a marriage to Lord Devlin as a solution to save his family from financial ruin and to get a handsome husband to father a child.
After a tedious dinner where the men were too eager and her step-mother Lady Charlotte Clayton tried to be gay, Dharma wished she could send the ‘money hungry’ men who were invading her family’s old hunting lodge fleeing. Lord Devlin, most of all. He was the most desperate.
And to her utter shame, she didn’t want Charlotte to marry him. What did that make her? Deceitful. It’s not as though she wanted to marry him herself—or did she?
No. She would marry for love, not money or position. She’d seen what a marriage without love was like as she watched Charlotte live a lonely life with her father. That was not for her.
So, now she faced a dilemma. The secret Charlotte had revealed to her earlier in the evening swirled in her brain like a tornado. The right man should know. The Duke of Sinclair, Sin to those he called friend, should know. Surely if His Grace needs a wife, and he learns Charlotte is not barren… Even to a young woman, somewhat innocent of the world, Dharma could tell Charlotte fascinated the handsome duke. Throughout dinner, he stared at Charlotte like a lion watching a gazelle. Not sure if he should pounce.
Should she tell him? By Crickey, Charlotte would kill her. And could she trust Sinclair not to spread gossip or mock Charlotte for the fact her husband had never gone to her bed?
Her head ached as she processed her options. The one thing she refused to confront was why the idea of the Marquis of Devlin learning Charlotte’s secret upset her more. Devlin’s one hesitation in asking the rich widow to marry him and save his family from destitution was Devlin wanted children. Like everyone else, Devlin thought Charlotte barren—but Charlotte had just never slept with her husband. Dharma’s father had never gone to his new wife’s bed, still so in love with Dharma’s mother’s memory.
That’s the sort of love Dharma craved from her marriage. A love so deep it eclipsed time.
Why did Devlin’s face keep creeping into her mind every time she thought of her future husband? Devlin was here to marry for money. He was here because when his father died several years ago with the word traitor hanging over his head, the prospect of finding a wealthy wife to save his family evaporated. Now he was so desperate for money, he was prepared to forgo an heir and leave that to his younger brother.
That was not romantic at all.
She’d known Devlin all her life. Why did she care a toss who he married? All he wanted was a rich wife and she would never be just a purse for any man. No. Having watched Charlotte’s marriage to her father and compared it to her mother’s marriage, Dharma knew it had to be love or nothing. Her parents had so much love it made the household sing with happiness. Her upbringing was like a spring day until her mother’s death. But then Charlotte had arrived, and her life was infinitely better for having Charlotte as her stepmother, even if her father never loved his new wife. She owed Charlotte so much. Her stepmother had stayed and endured a white marriage, with no chance of having a child of her own, for Dharma. Charlotte had understood the young Dharma couldn’t lose another mother.
That’s why Dharma wished she could give Charlotte all she deserved.
Where was Rosemary when she needed her? Rosemary would know what to do—especially about her brother, Lord Devlin.
She would write to Rosemary and—and what then? She couldn’t confess in a letter or ask for advice. What if someone else read the missive?
She needed His Grace, the Duke of Sinclair, to fall in love with Charlotte. Damn it, she couldn’t hide from the truth. She wanted the Duke of Sinclair to marry Charlotte so her stepmother wouldn’t marry Devlin as a last resort.
Drat the man. Why a man so set on marrying for money interested her, she’d never understand. She should despise him, yet… Lord Devlin was very handsome.
Her mind whirled with ideas. Sleep would not come, so she decided to fetch a book from the library. Pulling the sash on her robe tight, she slipped into the corridor and stood listening. It must be close to two in the morning and it appeared all were abed.
Having grown up in this hunting lodge, she didn’t need a candle to light her way. It was a full moon and light filtered in the many windows lining the corridor. It didn’t take her long to descend to the library, and she walked down the first wall looking for something interesting to read.
Dharma had just pulled the first book off the shelf when the noise of the curtain moving in the breeze from the open terrace doors, and the smell of a cheroot had her swinging around. A man sat in a high-back, winged chair by the open doors. The tip of his cheroot glow as he dragged on the other end.
She slowly straightened, and a shiver of unease slid through her. Who was it? If it was Lord Bann, she could be in trouble. She looked around for something to use for protection.
“Not very clever to be walking around this house in the dead of night—alone.”
Relief washed through her. Devlin. “I’m not the guest here.” She walked slowly towards where he sat like a king on his throne.
“There are desperate men under this roof.”
“I have a powerful set of lungs.” She let herself smile, but before her lips curled upwards, Devlin’s arm snaked out and pulled her onto his lap, his hand clamping over her mouth.
“Hard to scream now.”
Dharma was too shocked to struggle. Shocked at the feel of the masculinity wrapped around her. Shocked at how her body reacted—a shivering arousal. That was enough to see her come to her senses and struggle. Devlin released her immediately with a laugh.
“Not so brave after all.”
She moved out of his reach. “I’m not scared of you. You’d never hurt me. Rosemary is my best friend. I’ve known you all my life.”
He sat silently staring at her for a moment before uttering, “Ah, honor goes out the window like this wispy smoke, when a man’s desperate.”
He was drunk. She could smell the brandy on his breath. His cravat was hanging loose. His shirt hung open to his waist, and he looked like a man wallowing in a misery not of his making. But gosh, he looked so beautiful. Her heart swelled with the need to help him.
One short sentence could make his misery less. She could tell him Charlotte’s secret, but her throat closed until she could barely breathe. She didn’t want Devlin marrying Charlotte.
Like the flash from a lightning bolt, a vision blinded her.
She wanted to marry Devlin.
No. Surely not. He was a man who wanted money. You have money. Her dowery was considerable. Her brother Tobin would welcome the match. As would Rosemary. It could save Devlin’s estates and family.
Her mouth would not move, because deep inside, she wanted more.
“You’re exquisite, you know.”
His soft words sent heat through her already on edge body. “That’s the drink talking. Or is it you are changing horses mid race? My stepmother is not to your liking, so the stepdaughter, with the very large dowry, will do instead.”
He rose unsteadily to his feet, putting her aside. “I hope I remember that excellent suggestion in the morning.” And without another look at her, he weaved across the room and out the door. Dharma listened to him stumbling up the stairs.
She slowly moved to close the doors out onto the terrace and stood looking at the moon.
What a mess. She could save him. Rosemary would welcome Dharma marrying her brother. But Dharma would not marry a man who only wanted her dowry.
But even though Charlotte could save Rosemary’s family by marrying Devlin, she would do everything she could to make Sinclair fall in love with Charlotte.
As she made her way back to her bedchamber, she refused to admit the reason why she preferred Sinclair marry Charlotte and she could hear that reason still stumbling up the stairs.
London, 1 February 1817 (6 months later)
Everyone who was anyone had arrived back in London over the past ten days. Parliament had its first sitting this week. Tonight Lady Bradshaw, one of society’s grande dames, held the honor of hosting the inaugural ball of the season.
Dharma should have been looking forward to the evening. The event was a chance to catch up with friends, and to observe this rarity of beings—men looking for wives. But for once Dharma was unsure of what she wanted, or if she was truthful with herself, who she wanted in her life.
Ever since Charlotte’s marriage to the Duke of Sinclair, Devlin had set his cap at her. He’d of course returned to his estates for Christmas, so she hadn’t seen him for two months. She tried to resist the urge, but when she missed him, she couldn’t help but pull open her dresser drawer and reread every word of his letters.
While Dharma wanted to believe his interest in her was because of feelings of love, something held her back. Seeing her stepmother trapped in a loveless marriage to her father for many years, Dharma’s worst fear was making a mistake and marrying the wrong man. A lifetime was too long to live trapped.
Given her whirling thoughts, she wanted to kick herself. Why had she agreed to accompany Devlin in the second waltz of the evening?
The word dance conjured visions of gliding movement and swirling dresses, but what Dharma saw, or to be exact, felt, was heat, passion, and desire—especially when she was in Devlin’s arms. Was it love or money that saw him so persistent in his pursuit?
Love was her goal in any marriage, and without it, she would not care if she became a spinster.
He glided her around the ballroom floor with a gentle, but firm, touch. With his sandalwood scent filling her senses to where she almost gave in and leaned close to lick his neck to see what he tasted like. She really needed to find the answers she craved before it became a moot point and she fell in love.
She refused to fall in love until Devlin admitted his love for her. Heartbreak would be the outcome if she fell first, and he never reciprocated.
During Christmas, her brother Tobin, the Earl of Clayton, pulled her aside to discuss the daunting future that awaited her as the wife of a Marquis from a disgraced family. Even though Lord Devlin didn’t play any part in his father’s traitorous behavior, the family name permanently stained his reputation, which limited Devlin’s marriage prospects. The fact his family had no money didn’t help either.
Tobin suggested she consider her options carefully. Her brother liked Devlin and would not oppose a marriage, but he wanted her to understand what her life would be like. Shunned for social invitations. Looked down upon by those who should be below her station. And her children would find life difficult with friends few and far between. Currently, she was the bell of the ball, a diamond of the first water. These titles would vanish the minute she agreed to wed Lord Devlin.
Did she care? Not when he smiles at me like this.
“We are causing quite the stir,” Devlin said in her ear as they twirled among the crowd. His voice sent shivers over her skin, the timbre of his tone like a velvet cloth.
“That’s because this is the second waltz you’ve danced with me tonight. You have made your intentions clear—to everyone.”
“I’m sorry for bringing such unwanted attention upon you.”
“No you’re not.”
He laughed and the sound curled her toes. “True. I’ve made my intentions clear after the your stepmother’s house party. I wish to court you this season with a view to announcing our engagement by the end of the season.”
“So soon? What’s the rush?” Was it his need for money?
“I want you.”
“I’m not to be had for the wanting.”
He looked into her eyes and she could not look away. “Then I shall have to make you want me.”
She gritted her teeth. Don’t let him provoke you. Society is watching. “And because I haven’t discouraged your interest, many mothers with marriageable sons are keeping them well away from me. If I wish to find a husband this season, allowing you to pay a call on me is not an advantage.”
He pulled her closer, which was totally unacceptable and only caused the stares to gather steam. “That doesn’t matter. You can only marry one man, if I recall. That will be me.”
“Arrogance is not the way to win a lady’s heart.” That saw his smile vanish. Why did men fear genuine emotions like love? Time to change the subject. “His Grace and Charlotte look decidedly happy.”
“True. Sin chose well for his second marriage. I’m thrilled for Charlotte.”
She eyed him carefully. “You’re not upset about their marriage ending your chance of wedding her?”
The sparkle was back in his eye. “No. They seem to be a perfect match. I like Charlotte, but only as a friend.”
“That’s interesting. I thought you believed friendship to be a sound basis for marriage.”
He twirled her about until she was dizzy.
“Perhaps I’ve changed my mind. Friendship is important, but I think there needs to be more.” Just when Dharma thought he might talk about love, he added, “Passion and desire are, of course, a requirement.” He followed his words by squeezing her waist where his hand lay.
“How do you know we would share passion and desire?” she asked.
“Oh, my dear, we already do. I can see the vein in your neck pulse every time I smile at you. When I touch you, your eyes flash with heat, and when I hold you in my arms, like I am now, your body thrums with denied yearnings. You cannot hide your body’s response to me.”
Why did he have to be right? She hated he could read her so well. His experience with the opposite sex wasn’t a secret. “Your rakish ways have me at a disadvantage. How do I read you?” She didn’t expect him to answer, and she couldn’t imagine what he would say. Certainly not in the middle of a ballroom.
“If you want to press closer, you’ll feel the evidence of how much I desire you.”
She could have done without that image, because of course now she craved to push closer. The waltz ended and, looking him squarely in the eye, she pressed up against him before sliding round him. If anyone saw her, it would look as if she was simply moving round him to leave the floor.
In a quiet voice, she taunted him. “I’m not interested in the hardness of that part of your anatomy—impressive as it is, I’m sure. I’d prefer to know the secrets of the organ pumping in your chest.”
With that, she allowed him to escort her back to her brother’s side. Was it the heat of the ballroom or the feel of Devlin’s manhood that made her come over faint? But suddenly all Dharma wanted to do was escape from the vicious eyes of the ton. She glanced around for her friend Rosemary, Devlin’s sister, but she was on the dance floor with Lord Hawthorne.
For the first time in her life, she envied Rosemary, the traitor’s daughter. Lord Hawthorne’s father, the Earl of Whetten, was one of Lord Devlin’s most vocal detractors, yet Hawthorne was dancing with Rosemary, ignoring the gossip being spoken behind twittering fans. And he’d denied his father by being attentive all evening. If that wasn’t proof that he had proper feelings for Rosemary, Dharma would eat her fan.
Instead, she caught Charlotte’s eye. Her stepmother excused herself from where she was talking with two of the ton’s grande dames and came to her rescue. “It’s hot in here, Dharma. Would you accompany me for a stroll on the terrace?”
“That would be very pleasant, thank you.” Dharma slipped her arm through Charlotte’s and without a backward glance at Devlin, she walked eagerly toward a place where she could finally breathe. Where no one would bother watching her, because Devlin wasn’t by her side.
“I gather the ton’s stares are unsettling you. You could have asked Devlin to wait until later in the season to announce his intentions if you didn’t want to be in the spotlight.”
“Devlin will do what Devlin wants.”
“But did you talk to him before the ball?”
She shook her head.
“I see,” and Charlotte’s mouth firmed as they strolled down the steps and into the oil-lamp lit garden. She shivered against the cold. Perhaps a stroll should be a short one. The scent of dahlias, mixed with jasmine, filled the frosty air in Lady Bradshaw’s beautiful garden.
“Yes, all right. I wanted to see how he would behave in front of society.”
Charlotte sighed. “More like you wished to see society’s reaction before making your decision. Devlin will always be an outcast because of his father. If you can’t live with that, then set the man free to pursue someone else.”
“I’m not encouraging him. He’s free to pursue whomever he wants.” Why did those words stab at her heart?
“The tin mining business turning a profit has eased his money worries. He’s not rich yet, and he needs the mine income to restore his estate. But, he’s not after your dowry. Can you say that about any other man here?”
Could she? How did you know what’s in a man’s heart? “No other man is pursuing me.”
“Fencourt has been eyeing you all evening.”
“He’s too young to think of marriage.” She ignored Charlotte’s humph and turned them round to return to the warmth of the ballroom. “How did you know Sin’s intentions were honorable?”
Charlotte laughed. “Oh, at the beginning, I knew his intentions were not. He thought I was barren. He wanted me, but not as his wife. However, you and I are in totally different situations. I was a wealthy widow, while you are a young debutante with a reputation to protect, and no money to your name except your dowry, which goes to the husband you select. You do not have the freedom and choices I had.”
More’s the pity. “At what point did you know he actually loved you?”
“He showed his love for me by being willing to sacrifice everything, including his life and the future of his family, to be with me. A man who will give up everything he believes in is a man in love.” Then she turned and took hold of Dharma’s hands. “But because I loved Sin right back, I would never have let him give up anything that was important to him. Love is never selfish. It’s always selfless.”
When Charlotte pulled her in for a hug, she whispered in Dharma’s ear, “You’ll know you’re in love with Devlin when you would do anything to make him happy. Anything to make his life wonderful. You’ll know when he’s fallen in love with you, when he does the same.”
“I have to love him, knowing how society feels about him and how that will change my life?”
“But what if I fall in love and stand by his side and he doesn’t love me in return? He’s known me since I was a young girl and never looked at me as anything other than Rosemary’s best friend. Why would he choose me, except for my money?”
“At my house party, he finally saw that you have grown into a woman. He saw you as the wonderful young lady you have become. He saw that you’re beautiful and kind and have a generous nature. Look how you have doggedly stood by Rosemary’s side. Never once letting how society viewed Rosemary’s family make you turn your back on her. To Devlin, that is everything. He would do anything for his sister. For someone he loves.”
What would he do for her? What did she want him to do? How could she learn what was in his heart? Charlotte organized a series of amusements at her house party to discover a man’s character. Could she set Devlin some tasks that would reveal his feelings?
“I’ll share one more piece of advice, then I shall leave you to your own counsel,” her stepmother added. “Men guard their feelings tighter than a starving man holds onto his last piece of bread. Be patient. Don’t force him before he’s ready.”
“That’s the problem. I’ll be expected to marry by the end of the season, and if I wait to learn what’s in Devlin’s heart I might miss out”—
“Would you ever want to take second best? Why commit yourself to Devlin if there may be a man you haven’t even considered? Take your time. Does it matter if you take one more season to find your heart’s desire? It’s better to be slow than make a hasty mistake. I know.”
“What if my best prospects find someone else?”
Charlotte scolded. “Then they were not for you if they don’t set their cap at you and fight for your hand. A man who marries the first debutante he meets is most likely wanting a marriage of convenience.”
“I don’t want a marriage of convenience.” She sighed into the chilly night and shivered. I regret going to your house party because I never saw Devlin as a potential husband before that week.”
Charlotte pressed a kiss on her cheek. “We never know who fate will throw our way, but sometimes it’s just what we wished for.”
As they re-entered the ballroom, Dharma thought it was easy for her stepmother to say. Fate had given her everything she desired. Would fate be as kind to her?
No sooner had they entered than Sin was at Charlotte’s side. “I think it’s time to retire for the evening, my love. We don’t want you overtired.”
Dharma’s head snapped up, and her mouth dropped open. “Are you with”—
“Say nothing. I don’t want everyone to know yet.”
Dharma hugged her step-mother so tightly, and tears welled in her eyes. Charlotte had wanted this for so long. She whispered in her ear, “I think this is the most wonderful news I’ve ever heard.”
“Like I said, fate gave me everything I’d dreamed of and more. Think with your heart and your head, and the same will happen for you.”
On those fateful words, she looked up to see Devlin by her side in the company of her brother Tobin. They were relaxed and holding a conversation with Tobin’s wife, Lady Philippa. Another signal that her brother did not mind Devlin courting her. And didn’t the ton notice.
Before she spoke to him, a discreet cough had her looking up into the handsome face of Lord Fencourt. A young man who had made a point of dancing with her at each ball. She liked the amenable Viscount and, given his family had more money than almost anyone else in England, she knew he was not after her money.
“Sorry to interrupt, Lady Dharma, but you promised me the last dance of the night.”
She smiled at him while she noted Devlin stood frowning at her with arms folded across his enormous expanse of chest. She let Fencourt lead her onto the dance floor. It was a quadrille, so they wouldn’t be able to converse properly.
When the dance ended, they were on the opposite side of the ballroom from where her brother waited to escort her home.
While slipping her arm through his, she allowed Fencourt to stroll slowly around the outside of the dance floor. “It seems an age since I saw you last,” he said. “I have missed you. And now it appears I have a rival for your affections.”
She glanced toward Devlin, who stood with hands on hips, glaring at them. Ignoring the way her heart flipped in her chest at the look of possessiveness in Devlin’s eyes, she replied, “My affections have yet to find a permanent home.”
“I am ecstatic to hear that news. Would it be too much to presume you would be free for a turn in the square tomorrow? Weather permitting, of course.”
Trying not to think of Devlin, she said, “That would be lovely. Shall we say two?”
As they reached her brother’s side, Devlin moved to stand beside him. Fencourt offered his greeting before bowing over her hand and taking his leave. “Until tomorrow, Lady Dharma. I will hold you in my thoughts.”
“He seems smitten,” Tobin uttered out loud, and she wanted the floor to open beneath her.
“He’s but a boy,” Devlin said in disdain.
“True. He is a tad young to be seriously looking for a wife, but he is from an exceptional family with money.” Was that a dig at Devlin?
“You know nothing about him. He could have habits not appropriate in any husband.”
“That’s easy enough to find out,” her brother replied, his tone obviously indicating he was trying to get a rise out of Devlin.
Before she could hear what Devlin had opened his mouth to say, Rosemary arrived back from… a stroll…on the arm of Lord Hawthorne. She hid her smile. Rosemary looked beautiful with a flush of color on her face..
“Good evening, Lord Devlin,” and Hawthorne nodded at Clayton. “As Lady Devlin is not present this evening, may I enquire as to if I may call on Lady Rosemary tomorrow?”
Devlin looked the young man up and down. “Does your father know you’re paying court to my sister?” How odd, Dharma thought when she heard Rosemary’s indrawn breath, and noted the tension in Devlin’s jaw.
She watched as Hawthorne drew himself up to his full height and thought it wonderful that he was prepared to stand up to Lord Devlin. “I keep my council, as do you, I’m sure.”
Devlin studied him for a few seconds, getting the measure of the young man who appeared to be staking a claim to Rosemary, before finally nodding. “If my sister has no objection, then neither do I.”
With that, Hawthorne pressed a kiss to Rosemary’s knuckles and withdrew. Rosemary pulled her aside and gushed, “Isn’t he wonderful?”
“Well, his lordship obviously likes you. He didn’t bat an eyelid at Devlin’s presumption that he wished to court you.”
Rosemary’s mouth dropped open. “He didn’t, did he?” She twirled on the spot. “He’s wonderful. Charming. Handsome. And the first man to show any interest in the traitor’s daughter.”
“It would appear he does not care about the scandal surrounding your name. I think I like him for that alone. And did you see the way he did not back down from your brother’s thunderous stare?”
Rosemary’s smile faded. “Lord Whetten will not like his son’s choice in courting me.”
“Then Hawthorne must have feelings for you if he is prepared to vex his father.” He was the first man brave enough to take an interest in her.
They made their way out to their carriages.
Dharma had a wonderful idea. “Why don’t you ask Hawthorne to take you for a stroll tomorrow at two? You could walk to my house and Fencourt and I could join you.” That way, she would not have to talk with Fencourt alone.
“Fencourt? He is keen again this year?” Rosemary smiled. “Perhaps we could have a double spring wedding next year. That would be wonderful.”
She pressed a kiss to Rosemary’s cheek. “You would not be angry if I didn’t marry your brother?”
Rosemary looked over her shoulder to where her brother stood talking to Clayton. “I want you to marry the man you love. If my brother should get so lucky, I’d be over the moon. But if he is not the man for you, then as long as you are happy, so am I.”
“Thank you. That means a lot to me. I want nothing to ruin our friendship. I value it more than I can say.” When her mother died, Rosemary was her rock. She got her through the pain and loss until Charlotte came into her life.
“Nothing would ever come between our friendship. Not even a husband,” and they both laughed.
“Good night, my dear friend.”
Dharma replied before she entered the carriage. “See you at two.”
She sat on the squab, pulling the surrounding rugs against the chilly night, and wished Tobin would hurry. Suddenly, there was a knock on the carriage window. She slid the window down to see Devlin standing there, and Tobin and Philippa still talking to their hostess in the foyer.
“Your brother has agreed you will join me in my box at the opera tomorrow night, or should I say this evening, since it’s actually already the next day.”
“I may have made other plans.” You arrogant arse!
“Well, no.” Damn it.
He smiled. “Then I will see you later this evening. Tell that young pup he won’t win your hand.” Then he was gone with only his dizzying masculine sandalwood scent filling the space. She hated that she took a deep breath. Worse still, she hated that the only thing she was looking forward to today was the opera, not the walk with a certain ‘young pup’.Return to The Allure Of Lord Devlin