London, March 1819
An unsettled irritation ran through Marcus Raleigh, Marquess of Ripley, as he rode onto Rotten Row. The breeze cooled his face and a bit of his ire. Until he neared the end of the track, where a group of gentlemen were gathered to the side of the footpath. On the periphery of that group, a familiar face jolted him to a stop.
Marcus steered from the path and dismounted. After securing his horse to a post, he stalked toward the group. His annoyance grew to anger, an emotion he rarely succumbed to.
Upon his reaching the group, the object of his ire met his gaze with eerily light eyes. “Afternoon, Ripley,” he said.
“Might I have a word, Drobbit?” Marcus kept his tone even despite his displeasure.
No, not displeasure. He was furious for the first time in…years. His cousin Archibald Drobbit had apparently been embezzling money from gentlemen by organizing investment schemes. He’d all but ruined Marcus’s new friend, Graham, the Duke of Halstead. Rather, Drobbit had ruined the former duke and Graham had inherited the mess.
“Certainly.” Drobbit, who was short and stocky, with a thick neck, left the group and ambled toward Marcus, who then led him off the track away from the others. “It’s been some time, cousin.”
Satisfied they were removed enough for a private discussion, Marcus stopped and turned on the smaller man. “Spare me your idle conversation. It’s boring and pointless. It’s also offensive.”
Drobbit had to tip his head back to look up at Marcus, his eyes narrowing with unease as his usually sly smile disappeared. He clasped his hands behind his back, perhaps in an effort to appear nonchalant, as if they conversed like this every day. As if they conversed ever. “How have I offended you?”
“By preying on others.”
The unease in Drobbit’s eyes expanded to fear, his pupils dilating slightly.
“Don’t.” Marcus edged forward, glaring down at the man, who was his elder by a handful of years. “I know precisely what you’ve done. Well, not precisely, but I know what you’ve done to Halstead, and you’re going to tell me who else you’ve stolen from. Then you’re going to make restitution to every single one of them.”
Drobbit’s face paled. He lifted his hand to his neck and pulled gently at his cravat. “I, um, none of that is true.”
“Don’t lie,” Marcus spat. “I know it’s true, and I know there are others. Perhaps you’d rather I ensure you’re prosecuted for fraud.”
“You can’t do that.”
Marcus nearly laughed. “Have you forgotten I’m a marquess? And you’re…no one.”
Panic leached into Drobbit’s features, making him appear feverish. “I’m your cousin!” While that was true, they weren’t close. Their mothers had been sisters who’d fallen out after Marcus’s mother had married a marquess. Drobbit’s mother had grown to despise her sister.
“I’m sure you used that connection to benefit you in any way possible.” Marcus glowered at him. “You’ll return the money you stole. And don’t bother protesting again. You demean what’s left of your character.
“You’ll also tell me about this scheme. I want to know everything—how you found your marks, how you persuaded them to trust you, what you did with the money.”
Drobbit shook his head. “I have nothing to say to you.”
Marcus moved toward Drobbit until he stood close enough to tower over the man. “You do, and you will.”
Drobbit’s lip curled, and for the first time, he didn’t look like a sniveling coward. “Go to the devil.”
Marcus grabbed the man’s lapels and shook him. “I refuse to allow you to sully my family name or continue ruining people’s lives.” He thought of Graham’s betrothed and how her family had been on the brink of bankruptcy, her father fearing debtor’s prison.
“Ripley!” Drobbit shrieked, prompting Marcus to remember they were in a very public place. He let go of the man, but did so with enough force to send Drobbit stumbling backward.
The anger roiling inside Marcus simmered as he strode toward his cousin. “I will call on you to settle this matter.”
“Settle it how? You don’t mean to call me out?” Drobbit’s voice climbed. “You’d kill me.”
Marcus snorted. “You’re lucky you aren’t dead already. Though, if it were up to me, you might be.”
Drobbit’s eyes goggled, and his throat worked. He looked as if he were choking on something. Then his gaze shot to Marcus’s left.
Marcus darted a look in that direction and swore under his breath. A crowd of onlookers watched them with rapt interest. As if Marcus didn’t already enjoy a questionable reputation as a libertine.
Scowling, Marcus kept his voice low. “I’m not going to call you out.”
Drobbit shook his head. “We have nothing further to discuss.”
“Did you not hear what I said before?” Marcus asked with quiet frustration. “You’ll go to prison. You may even be transported.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Drobbit’s tone was so arrogant, so blithe, that Marcus’s temper snapped.
Marcus grabbed him by the lapel once more, but with only one hand. Drobbit quickly pivoted and brought his left fist up, striking Marcus in the cheek.
Reacting without thought, Marcus hit him back, delivering a blow to Drobbit’s eye. He followed with a second punch to his cousin’s jaw. Drobbit’s head snapped back, and Marcus let him go. The smaller man teetered, then dropped to the ground on his arse.
A few of the spectators rushed forward, but they simply stood there staring between Marcus and his cousin. Bloody hell, this was not what Marcus had intended. And yet, what did he expect? This was what happened when one surrendered to emotion. His father’s voice echoed in his head: Strong emotions never did anyone any good.
It was one of many things the man had been right about. Marcus pushed away thoughts of his father lest one of those strong emotions rise to the surface.
Drobbit glared up at him, almost taunting him. Did he want a spectacle? Marcus wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. He’d discover the man’s direction and call on him.
“This isn’t over,” Marcus said. He wanted to be sure Drobbit really had ceased his deceptive behavior, and he’d find out where the money had gone. There couldn’t be nothing.
With a final curl of his lip, Marcus started to turn. Something hit him in the side of the head. The projectile connected with force, driving pain through Marcus’s temple. He realized Drobbit had thrown something—a rock, perhaps.
Marcus started toward him, but Drobbit scrambled to his feet and dashed off. Stifling an invective, Marcus spun away from the crowd that had gathered and stalked to his horse. A second group, this one of ladies, stood on the footpath and stared at him.
After untying his horse, Marcus swung up onto the saddle and urged the gelding into a trot back down Rotten Row. By the time he reached the end, however, he blinked against a stinging sensation—blood had trickled into his eye.
“Blast it all,” he muttered before steering from the path and dismounting. He didn’t have a damn thing to wipe at the blood so he pulled his cravat free and immediately swiped the silk over his eye in an effort to clean it. Horace nudged his shoulder as if to ask if he was all right.
“I’ll be fine,” Marcus said, stroking his muzzle.
The sound of hooves drew him to turn toward the path he’d just left. A woman walked her horse toward him, then dismounted without assistance.
“Impressive,” he said.
“Here, let me.” She came toward him with a handkerchief and brushed his hand away. Lifting her hand, she dabbed around his eye. “You’re rather tall.”
He saw a bench nearby. “Would it be better if I sat?”
“Yes, but what of the horses?”
Leading Horace to a nearby tree, Marcus tossed the reins over a branch. He went back to fetch her horse and slipped the reins over a different branch. “This should do.”
With a faint nod, the young woman pivoted and walked briskly to the bench.
Following his angel of mercy, he sat down and removed his hat. He tipped his head back, both to give her better access and so he could study her.
She wore a pert peacock-blue-colored riding hat set atop her dark curls at a jaunty angle. Delicate sable brows crowned a magnificent pair of jade-green eyes. They gleamed with intelligence and concern. Her rose-pink lips were slightly pursed as she tended to him.
“His aim was quite good,” she murmured, cleaning his temple.
He winced when she pressed on the wound itself. “You saw what happened?”
“Everyone in Hyde Park saw what happened.” Her wry tone sparked with wit, igniting his curiosity about her.
“I can’t believe that’s true.” But then he hadn’t paid close attention to the size of the crowd.
“Well, perhaps not everyone. It’s a rather large park.” She lifted her hand briefly before applying pressure once more. “This doesn’t seem to want to stop bleeding.”
“It will take a minute—or ten,” he said, studying her more closely. The tip of her nose turned up just slightly, and he suspected she had dimples when she smiled. “Wounds to the head are like that.”
“You have experience with head wounds?” she asked.
“Once or twice,” he answered absentmindedly as he took in the gentle sweep of her jaw and the graceful line of her neck, nearly hidden from his gaze by her smart riding costume. “You’re very beautiful. Why haven’t we met?”
Her laughter sparkled around him like a firework at Vauxhall. And yes, she had dimples. The right one was slightly deeper than the left. “I daresay we do not keep the same company.”
“Pity, but I fear you are correct. You are obviously a Society…matron?” With her smooth skin and plump lips, she looked young, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t wed. Since she was without a companion or a chaperone, she must be married. Either way, it was odd for her to be here alone.
Her laughter was more subdued this time. “I am not a matron. I am a spinster.”
Now it was his turn to laugh. “You sound quite proud of yourself.”
“It’s preferable to being a wife.” She shuddered.
How rare to meet a woman who shared his opinion of marriage. “Is that why you’re a spinster? You seem awfully young for that designation.”
“It is self-declared, I assure you. I have no quarrel with being called such. Furthermore, I’m not young at all.”
“Surely you can’t be more than twenty-one.”
“Surely I can. I am, in fact, twenty-five.”
Marcus gasped in mock horror. “You’re positively ancient. Whereas at thirty-one, I am at the height of my virility. It’s too bad you weren’t born a man.”
“A sentiment I have reflected upon many times.” Her wry tone and humor-filled gaze stirred a warmth inside him. The word rare rose in his mind again.
“So why not behave like one? Is that why you’re here alone?”
“I’m not alone. My groom is waiting nearby.”
“Well, that’s a shame, because I was going to offer to see you home.” He gave her a lazy smile. “I still could.” His gaze connected with hers, and heat flickered between them. Attraction came easily to Marcus—perhaps too easily—but once in a while, there was something…more.
She quickly looked away, leading Marcus to question what he thought he’d seen. “That won’t be necessary.”
When she started to remove her hand, he reached up and gently clasped her wrist. “Why did you stop to help me?”
Her gaze found his once more, and color tinted her cheeks. She was more than beautiful. She was charm and grace, and there was something else lurking beneath the surface of her spinsterliness—passion. “Because you needed someone to, didn’t you?”
He would argue that he didn’t need anyone; however, in this case, her assistance was most welcome. “Apparently, and for that, I am grateful. I wish to repay your kindness.”
She pulled the cloth from his head and studied the wound a moment. “I believe the bleeding has stopped. You will need to clean this up when you get home.”
“If I saw you home, you could invite me in and clean it up for me.”
She folded the handkerchief so that the blood-soaked part was on the interior. “There is the Lord Ripley I expected.”
He exhaled and stood from the bench. “Alas, my reputation always precedes me.”
“Perhaps if you ceased your roguish behavior, your reputation would change.”
“Oh, I don’t wish to change it.” He grinned. “Like you, I am quite content with my designation. As a libertine, that is.” He reached for the cloth she held. “Let me take that.” His fingers grazed hers, and, despite their gloves, desire thrummed through him.
She relinquished the handkerchief more quickly than he would have liked. “Why?”
“I’ll have it cleaned and then return it to you. However, I don’t know your direction or even your name. Pray release me from the darkness of ignorance.”
After staring at him a moment, she rolled her eyes. “You really have perfected this, haven’t you? That does not require an answer. Nor does your request. Keep the handkerchief. You don’t need to return it.”
He blinked at her in slight surprise. He’d been rebuffed before, but seldom and not in some time. “You aren’t going to tell me your name? That’s rather cruel and again begs the question why you stopped to help me.”
“As I said, you seemed to need it, and I am, if nothing else, a considerate person.”
“Then have a care for me, dear lady, and deliver me from misery. Will you give me your name if I promise not to call?”
One of her sable brows tilted dubiously. “Will you actually keep that promise?”
No, and that she’d already discerned that about him was…intriguing. “I’m going to find out who you are whether you tell me or not. I guarantee I will be on your doorstep by tomorrow.”
Her lips spread into a wide, vivacious smile, and Marcus’s breath fixed in his lungs. “You’re welcome to try. I bid you good day, my lord.” She inclined her head, then turned to go.
“Until tomorrow, mystery lady.” Marcus couldn’t recall the last time he’d been so…aroused. Not just physically, though he absolutely was, but mentally. He very much looked forward to learning her identity. “You know, I could just follow you,” he called after her.
She stopped, then looked back at him over her shoulder. “You could, but where’s the fun in that?”
Oh, this was going to be too diverting. Anticipation curled through him as he watched her go to her horse. The groom she’d mentioned appeared from behind some shrubbery and helped her mount. Marcus should have accompanied her so he could provide assistance. What a bloody missed opportunity.
After she was gone from his view, he went back to his horse and mounted. He patted the gelding’s neck, “Did you see her, Horace?” He was tempted to follow her, but he’d learn her identity without resorting to that. How many breathtaking, self-declared spinsters could there be?
Hell, he didn’t know any spinsters. Perhaps his friend Anthony Colton could help him. Anthony was a viscount and, until recently, in possession of a sterling reputation. Perhaps he would know who she was. Except Marcus didn’t have much information to provide. Now he regretted not following her.
As he rode home to Hanover Square, he felt much better than when he’d set out. Recalling his earlier agitated state, he winced inwardly. The situation with Drobbit was frustrating, and he hated that he’d allowed himself to be provoked into fighting with the man. In public, no less.
But his cousin had to answer for his crimes. Marcus owed it to his friend Graham and the countless other people Drobbit’s fraud had harmed. He’d get to the bottom of things with him.
Right after he found his mystery beauty.Return to A Duke is Never Enough
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