Excerpt from The Seduction of Lady Phoebe

Late June 1806, Worthington Hall, England

Lord Marcus Finley poured his third glass of brandy and strolled back to the library window. The sunlit terrace and lawn provided a stark contrast to the dim, wood paneled room in which he stood contemplating his bleak future and imminent banishment to the West Indies.

His gaze was drawn to the petite figure of Lady Phoebe Stanhope. The sun caught her reddish-blond curls, creating a halo effect as she laughed and played with the Worthingtons’ young girls. Simply seeing her joy eased some of his pain.

Everything about Lady Phoebe was perfect, from her curls and deep sky-blue eyes to her small feet and neatly turned ankle. There was a connection between them. He’d felt it. She was the only one who had tried to understand him. He wanted to marry her, but it seemed impossible now. Why had he met the only woman he’d ever want just days before he left?

He wondered what their children would have looked like. Another rush of anger swept through him, and he forcibly loosened the fingers he’d tightened around his glass.

“Marcus, there you are.”

He turned as his friend, Mattheus Vivers, heir to the Earl of Worthington, strode toward him. Vivers was the only reason Marcus was at the house party.

His friend pointed at the brandy. “That’s not going to help, you know.”

Marcus stared at the glass for a moment, watching the sun catch the amber shades of the liquid before downing the drink. “I’m going to hell in any case. What does it matter how I do it?”

Vivers rubbed a hand over his face. “When was the last time you were completely sober?”

“When my father told me I was being banished—and to where.” Marcus turned back to the window, his anger consuming him. Even his brother, Arthur, hadn’t defended Marcus. That had been the worse betrayal.

Vivers joined him at the window. “What’s so interesting out there?”

Marcus went back to the view of Lady Phoebe. “My last unshattered dream.”

Vivers glanced out. “Lady Phoebe Stanhope? Give it up.”

Scowling, Marcus replied, “Why? I may be a second son, but I’m still eligible. Once I reach my majority, I have the inheritance from my mother’s aunt.”

His friend ran a hand through his hair, disordering its fashionable style. “Very well, I’ll list the reasons. You’re a minor and need your father’s consent to wed, the same father, by the way, who is banishing you to the West Indies before you embroil yourself in a scandal here that can’t be smoothed over. The most important is she is not yet out.”

Marcus’s stomach clenched as if he’d been punched. “What do you mean she’s not out?”

“Not. Out. Not old enough to be on the Marriage Mart,” Vivers enunciated clearly. “At twenty you’re five years too young yourself. Do you really imagine that her father would consent to you marrying her? Ladies marry at twenty, not gentlemen.”

Marcus shook his head, trying to clear it. Why was she at this house party then? Was this some joke fate was playing on him? Or was it more punishment? “How old is she?”

“I don’t really know,” his friend shrugged. “Sixteen or seventeen, maybe. She has a great deal of countenance, so it’s hard to be certain. It’s a shame you won’t be here when she does come out,” Vivers mused. “I don’t expect she’ll last long on the Marriage Mart.”

Marcus felt like he was dying. By the time he was five and twenty, she would be married and have children. “Perhaps Lady Phoebe would go with me to the West Indies. God knows I love her.”

“We’ll have dinner at the tavern and attend the cockfight,” Vivers said. “That will put you in a better frame of mind. She leaves early to-morrow. Better if you don’t see her.”

Marcus poured another glass, tossed it off. “There must be something I can do.”

He went to add more brandy to his glass, but Vivers snatched the tumbler from Marcus’s hand.

“You’ve had more than enough to drink. Good God, man. Get it through your head. You cannot marry her. Now go to your chamber, and sleep it off before you do something stupid.”

Vivers left, and Marcus went to follow. He wobbled a bit as he took a step.

Lady Phoebe was waving as she made her way to the house. He would intercept her and make his case. This was his last chance to win her. In nine days he’d be on a ship to the West Indies, but first he’d take her to Gretna Green.

Phoebe entered the house through a side door. She’d thought Lord Marcus would join them outside and wondered if he was off with Mr. Vivers. Lord Marcus was so nice—no, better than nice—and handsome. Her stomach felt like it had butterflies whenever she thought of him. He’d touched her hand once and it tingled. She couldn’t even breathe when he was near, his presence filled her with such joy and her heart pounded when they spoke. Phoebe was sure she was in love. Nothing else could be so magical.

She hesitated, remembering what Lady Worthington had said. That Lord Marcus wasn’t at all the thing, and that he was being banished before he caused a large scandal. But if that was true, surely Phoebe would not have fallen in love with him. The only thing to do was to ask him about the rumors.

An hour later, dressed in a very pretty gown of sprig muslin, Phoebe made her way toward the drawing room, passing through the picture gallery. The afternoon sun lit one-half of the wide corridor. Long mullioned windows were flanked by red and gold brocade hangings and red velvet-covered benches sat against the outside wall.

Centuries of portraits of somber-faced Vivers hung on the inside paneled walls. As she approached the ancient, carved, double doors leading to the grand staircase, something moved. She stopped.

Lord Marcus staggered slightly as he strolled out from the corner. “I’ve been looking for you, my dear.” His words were slurred as if he was drunk.

 

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