The Scandalous Adventures of the Sister of the Bride

PROLOGUE

 

New York, June 1887

 

Do hurry with that.” Delilah, Lady Hargate, cringed at the sharp note in her voice.

She did so hate to be rude especially after, well, after everything but she wasn’t used to being in this position. She’d certainly never been in this position before, never imagined she would, and really had no idea how she now found herself here. Nor did she have any idea how to gracefully extricate herself although she suspected graceful was no longer possible.

“If you would be so good,” she added as politely as she could, even while knowing that minor attempt to atone for her impatience made no difference.

Behind her, he chuckled but thankfully continued to lace her corset. “Eager to be away are you?”

Courtesy battled with honesty although perhaps this was not the time to be polite.

“Well, yes, I am. It is almost dawn and . . . well . . .” Slipping out of his room in the fashionable Murray Hill Hotel and back to her own rooms without notice would be even more difficult once the sun was up. Not that it wasn’t going to be awkward now. Still, the sooner she left, the better her chances of avoiding detection. “I do need to get back before my absence is noted.”

“Of course,” he murmured. “We wouldn’t want that.”

“No, we would not.” Her jaw tightened. Discovery was the last thing she wanted.

Delilah shared a suite of rooms with her sister, Camille, Lady Lydingham. Camille’s fiancé, Grayson Elliott, occupied the suite of rooms next to theirs. Fortunately, no doubt for both sisters, each bedroom had its own separate entry to the hotel corridor. Delilah didn’t doubt for a moment that Camille took advantage of that door to join Grayson in his rooms on more than one occasion, if not nightly. But even though Delilah officially accompanied them in the role of chaperone, she did not feel it necessary to intrude on her sister and her fiancé. After all, Camille was a widow, older than Delilah, and was set to marry Grayson in just a few months. Besides, Grayson was the love of her sister’s life even if it had taken years for the couple to realize they were meant to be together. But regardless of Delilah’s feigned ignorance with respect to the goings-on between the engaged couple, she had no desire for Camille to discover Delilah’s own indiscretions. Besides, Camille and Camille’s twin, Beryl, Lady Dunwell, had a certain image of their younger sister that Delilah preferred not to destroy. Whether that image was entirely accurate or not.

“If you could possibly be a little quicker . . .”

“I’m doing the best I can. I am not a lady’s maid, you know. And as surprising as it may sound given the circumstances, I have very little experience at this kind of thing.”

“That is good to know,” she said under her breath.

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why is that good to know?”

“I would hate to think I was merely another conquest.”

“I would debate the term conquest and I would never call you mere.” He chuckled again. “I don’t do this sort of thing very often.”

Why did he think this was so amusing?

“Yes, well, I don’t do this sort of thing at all.”

“And yet you did it remarkably well.” His tone was mild but she could hear the smile in his voice.

She wasn’t entirely sure if she should thank him for that or slap him. She decided to accept his comment as a compliment and not allow her own sense of impropriety, or possibly guilt, to make it something else. Not that she had anything to feel guilty about. It was not as if she was an innocent virgin who had escaped the notice of an unsuspecting chaperone to run amok amid the men of New York. She was an adult, a widow, and financially independent as well. If she wished to have a scandalous interlude in a hotel room in a city she fully planned never to visit again with a man she had barely met and planned as well never to see again it was her decision. Still, it wasn’t at all like her and she wasn’t certain what had come over her.

“There.” A note of satisfaction sounded in his voice.

“Excellent.” She glanced around and found the gown she had discarded last night.

When she had first decided to wear the costume of a Dresden shepherdess to last night’s masked ball she had thought it charming, if perhaps a touch risqué. But then why not be a little risqué? It wasn’t as if anyone knew her here. And it was a masked ball after all. Besides, it was time, past time really, to try something a little different in her life.

The costume was as much an effort to be someone other than Delilah, Lady Hargate, as was throwing caution to the winds and indulging in this intimate encounter with a man she scarcely knew. Now she realized it was a mistake. Not the costume, although that probably was a mistake as well, but this . . . this . . . this night of, well,sin for lack of a better word. She was who she was and one certainly couldn’t change that sort of thing about a person even if one wished to. She was not the type of woman to wear risqué costumes and she was not the type of woman to join a virtual stranger in his bed. Not that it hadn’t been most enjoyable and a great deal of fun. She pushed the thought aside. Now was not the time. Regardless of the mutual enjoyment of the last few hours, this wasn’t something she would do again. Ever.

She’d had her moment of adventure. It was over and done with and best put behind her. Which she intended to do as soon as she could escape from his room. She turned away and stepped into the flounced and beribboned gown, pulled it up, slipped her arms into the puffed sleeves, and then tightened the laces on the bodice. As complicated as the gown appeared, it had been leased from an agency that provided costumes for theatrical productions and was constructed to be easily put on and taken off. Which had served her well last night. She groaned to herself. Too well, really.

“That’s that then.” She turned toward him and forced a smile. “Thank you for a lovely evening, Mr.—”

“Russell.” A slight smile curved the corners of his lips. “Samuel Russell.”

“Of course,” she said with more than a little indignation. “I do know your name.”

His brow quirked upward. “Forgive me, I thought perhaps you’d forgotten.”

“I would not forget the name of the man I had just . . .” She glanced at the rumpled bed. “Well, I would not forget your name, that’s all.”

“Delilah.” He stepped toward her. “I will never forget anything about last night.” He smiled in an altogether too smug manner, his overall air of satisfaction heightened by the deep blue silk dressing gown he wore. If one had an image in one’s mind of what a man would wear after a night of wild abandon, a dark blue silk dressing gown would certainly be included. As would a smug smile. “Or this morning for that matter.”

This morning? Good Lord! “I must be going.” She drew a deep breath. “I should thank you for a lovely evening.”

“No.” He took her hand and raised it to his lips. “It is I who should thank you.”

She snatched her hand away. “Yes, well, be that as it may . . .”

She paused to marshal her senses. It was not at all easy. Mr. Russell—Samuel—was dashing in a rugged American sort of way and in many ways the kind of man she’d secretly found fascinating in her youth. Not now, of course. Still, there was an air of excitement about him, an air of adventure, although she might’ve been the only one who noticed. No doubt other women were too busy noticing how handsome the man was with his blond hair, somewhat unruly in spite of what she suspected were his best efforts, and dark brown eyes, that seemed at once intense and amused. His shoulders were broad, his body hard and muscled, he stood nearly a foot taller than she, and he looked every bit as delicious costumed tonight as a pirate as he had in his everyday clothes when they had first met. And looked even better without any clothing at all. Yet another thought she dashed from her mind. He was, in addition, charming and funny and she probably laughed more with him than she ever had with any man. There was something about this man and his laugh, free and unreserved, that caught at something deep within her. Silly of course, she’d heard men laugh before and she’d never found herself in their beds. Why she hadn’t resisted this man had nothing to do with his laugh or his dark eyes or the shiver that ran down her spine when he so much as brushed her hand. No, this indiscretion was obviously due to the circumstances of her trip to America and an odd desire within herself to taste adventure the like of which she’d never known before. Unfortunately, Lady Hargate was ripe for adventure.

She wasn’t entirely sure why that long-simmering desire had at last surfaced but she was fairly certain she knew when. It was the moment she realized that aside from Camille and Grayson, she knew no one in New York. No one would have any expectations of her. No one would judge her, no one would condemn her. She didn’t have to be proper and perfect. She could be anyone she wanted to be here. She’d spent her entire life being who she was supposed to be and doing what she was supposed to do. Not that she didn’t like being proper and perfect, and she was, for the most part, quite content with her well-ordered and well-planned life, but just once (and really, could anyone ask for more than just once?), just once she wanted to be anything but the eminently respectable Lady Hargate. It was wicked, she knew that from the start, but somehow now, in a place where she could be whomever she wished to be, if only for a few days, it did seem like a wickedness one could be forgiven for. It was just once after all.

It wasn’t as if it had been her intention to fall into the bed of the first attractive man she’d met. No indeed. Such an idea hadn’t even crossed her mind. Unfortunately, this was the sort of thing that happened when one didn’t have a solid plan. She had simply decided to seize whatever opportunity for adventure presented itself, fully expecting that would be no more significant than an unescorted visit to a museum or a solitary walk in a park. Perhaps it would be nothing more than the purchase of a daring new hat or a gown that was more revealing than was approved of in London society. Or possibly her adventure might take the form of a dance with a gentleman she had not been properly introduced to or even a mild flirtation. Thoughts that had inevitably led directly to the Dresden shepherdess costume.

She would probably have come to her senses about this absurd desire for adventure if Samuel Russell hadn’t walked into her life and snatched all possibility of rational thought from her head. But apparently, when one has never had an adventure and is ripe for one, and one meets the handsome employee of a business associate of one’s future brother-in-law, and one then willingly dons a revealing gown in the guise of a Dresden shepherdess for a masked ball, when one doesn’t have a plan . . . well? Isn’t a night of rather extraordinary passion with a stranger almost to be expected?

Now, however, with the clear-mindedness of the approaching dawn, she could see what a mistake she had made. What a horrifying mistake. Unlike her sisters, Beryl in particular, she was not, nor had she ever been, a woman prone to adventure. This was not the type of thing she did. Ever. She would return to England tomorrow and put this incident in the past where it belonged. And Mr. Samuel Russell along with it.

“Mr. Russell–”

Once again his brow rose.

“Mr. Russell,” she repeated. In spite of their night together, use of his given name was entirely too, well, personal. “I don’t wish to be rude. And I have no desire to offend you. Indeed, that is the furthest thing from my mind.”

“Ah, yes, the only thing on your mind is leaving as quickly as possible.” His eyes narrowed. “Why would I be offended by that?”

“You shouldn’t be,” she said quickly. “It really has nothing to do with you at all.”

“Imagine my relief.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“That is interesting though, as I thought it had a great deal to do with me.” His voice was a bit harder than was necessary.

Surely he wasn’t annoyed with her? The man had no right to be annoyed but then the workings of the minds of men had never really made much sense to her.

“No, not at all. Believe me, I would be just as eager to leave if I were with someone else.” She glanced past him, spotted her shepherdess bonnet on the other side of the room, and stepped around him to retrieve it. It was silly to put the hat on but it would shield her face and perhaps prevent recognition. After all there had been no fewer than a dozen Dresden shepherdesses at the ball last night and who knew how many might still be wandering the corridors of the hotel. Even so, she had no idea how she would respond should she encounter her sister or Grayson. She slipped the bonnet on her head and then turned back to him. “I know that sounded dreadful and I do apologize but—”

“But the simple fact of the matter is you cannot wait to be on your way,” he said in a wry manner. “Understandable, of course, as you do not do this sort of thing.”

“And we scarcely know each other,” she blurted without thinking although it had occurred to her already. Precisely what made him as much an adventure as a mistake.

“I suspect we know each other better now than we did, oh, say, last night.”

“Nonetheless, we—”

“Let me see.” He paused for a moment. “I met you on Tuesday. Ran into you in the park on Wednesday—quite unexpectedly I might add. And again on Thursday our paths crossed. I was beginning to think it was fate.”

“It wasn’t fate,” she said sharply. “The very idea is absurd.”

“And then there you were last night.” He stepped closer and gazed down into her eyes. “And I have always been fond of porcelain shepherdesses.”

“Nonsense.” She shrugged off his comment but couldn’t tear her gaze from his. “No man is truly fond of frivolous knickknacks.”

“Ah well then, perhaps I misspoke. Maybe I am simply fond of eighteenth-century portrayals. And as you chose to dress in that manner—”

“Nonetheless, it was not fate.” She stepped back. “You may consider it whatever you wish I suppose, but it was really no more than coincidence. Fate had nothing to do with my choice of a costume nor did it have anything to do with our initial meeting and any subsequent meetings. Fate has not taken a hand here, Mr. Russell, and it would be best if you were to realize that.”

His expression was somber but laughter danced in his brown eyes. “My mistake then.”

“It is indeed a mistake if you think there is something more to this than what it is.” She drew a deep breath and braced herself. “While it was indeed a lovely evening–”

“It was exceptional.”

Heat swept up her face and she ignored it. “Regardless, it would be best to put this . . . this incident behind us.”

“I’m not sure I can do that.” He shook his head in a mournful manner. “It is not the sort of thing I am prone to forget. Indeed, I consider last night one of the more memorable nights of my life.”

“What utter rubbish.” She scoffed. “I don’t believe that for a moment. I suspect you’ve had any number of unforgettable nights with women far more memorable than I.”

“Do you?” A smile tugged at his lips. “And you base that on . . . what?”

“Well, you . . . you’re very . . . well, good, I suppose and . . .” She met his gaze directly. “It is apparent you have done this before.”

His brow furrowed with annoyance. “I have already said I am no more accustomed to—how did you put it? Ah yes—this sort of thing than you. And regardless of how many unforgettable nights I may or may not have had in the past, none of those women were you.”

“Oh.” Her breath caught and she stared at him. “I’m not sure what to say. I am most flattered.”

“And I did say it to be flattering.” It was impossible to miss the note of sarcasm in his voice.

“Then I thank you. Still, I am, for the most part, a most practical woman and it does seem extremely practical for us to go our separate ways.”

He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at her. “Now, you mean?”

“Yes, now, of course.” Why was the blasted man being so difficult? She was making her intentions perfectly clear in a calm, rational manner. Delilah forced a firm note to her voice. “Mr. Russell, I leave for home tomorrow. As there will be an ocean between us, I think it’s best if we forget about this encounter altogether.”

“Do you?”

“I think it would be wise if we pretended it never happened.”

“As one does with mistakes?”

Had he been reading her mind? “I never used the word mistake.”

“And yet it does seem apparent that is exactly what you’re thinking.” He paused. “So, this is not to be a beginning then?”

“Absolutely not.” Surprise widened her eyes. “I do apologize if I gave you that impression.”

He considered her for a moment. “You have no intention of ever seeing me again, do you?”

She breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, I’m so glad you understand.”

“But I don’t understand. And I have to say I am more than a little offended.”

“Offended?” She stared at him. “Why on earth would you possibly be offended?”

“Why? Because you’ve had your way with me and now you are simply going to discard me.”

“I’ve had my way with you?” She drew her brows together. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t had his way with her as well. Indeed, judging from the passion they’d shared throughout the night, passion shared more than once, he had had every bit as delightful a time as she had. Have her way with him indeed. “It’s not like that at all.”

“Then how is it?”

Dear Lord, she’d had no intention of explaining this all to him. Nor did it seem at all fair. She had fully expected him to be the kind of man who would be thrilled to hear her say good-bye with no fuss, no protests and no half-hearted promises. Of course, an annoying voice in the back of her head noted, if he had been that kind of man she probably would not have been attracted to him in the first place.

“Mr. Russell . . . Samuel.” She chose her words with care. “As I have already said, falling into the bed of a man who is very much a stranger is not something I have ever done. Nor is it something I ever imagined I would do. And I certainly don’t plan to ever do it again. I can attribute my actions to nothing more than a heretofore unknown adventurous streak within me.”

“I’m an adventure then?” A slow smile spread across his face. “That does take some of the sting out of it. I like being an adventure.”

She ignored him and continued. “And, as the very nature of adventure is its uniqueness, this is something that will not be repeated. Nor is it an adventure I wish to be reminded of. I am not the kind of woman who has adventures. I am not an adventurous sort. Therefore . . .” She drew a steadying breath and squared her shoulders. “I do indeed think it would be best if we never saw each other again.”

“I see.” He nodded thoughtfully. “You really think that would be best?”

She nodded. “Oh I do, I truly, truly do.”

“You leave me no choice then do you?”

“No, I don’t. Nor do I intend to. As I said it’s for the best. Besides, as my ship sails tomorrow, there will be no more crossing one another’s path unexpectedly and certainly no more . . .” She glanced at the rumpled bed. “Well, no more anything.”

“Ah well.” He shrugged. “If that’s the way you want it.”

“It is, Mr. Russell.” She nodded with perhaps more enthusiasm than necessary. “Besides, this wasn’t fate. It was only mere coincidence and nothing more significant than that.”

“Are you certain?”

“Absolutely.”

“And you would know fate when you saw it?”

“I would hope so. Although I will admit I have never especially believed in fate.”

“Very well then.” He nodded. “I have always thought that fate cannot be denied. But as you are leaving America, and the chances are indeed excellent that we will not see one another again, even in passing, I suppose you may be right. Besides, one can argue that if it was fate to be together, it is fate as well to part. Which does strike me as a terrible shame.” He paused. “Shall I escort you back to your rooms?”

“No,” she said quickly. “But I do thank you for offering. I might be able to explain why I am dressed like this if I am seen alone but I should never be able to explain why you were accompanying me.”

“Of course.” He chuckled. “I should have thought of that myself.”

“But then you do not do this sort of thing very often.” Relief prompted her to cast him a teasing smile.

“I hope you’re not disappointed that my reputation is not quite as tarnished as an adventure might require.”

“I am not the least bit disappointed.” She gazed into his dark eyes and for no more than a fraction of a moment wondered what might have been between them had he been more than an adventure. Had he been the kind of man she planned to spend the rest of her life with. But he wasn’t of course.

He took her hand and raised it to his lips, his gaze never leaving hers. “Thank you, Mrs. Hargate, for a most enjoyable evening. It was not merely my pleasure, it was my adventure as well.”

“Thank you, Mr. Russell, for my adventure. It was indeed . . .” She smiled up at him and at that moment had never meant anything more. “Unforgettable.”

 

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