The Wicked Heir- Blackhaven Brides, Book 12
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to Blackhaven, where the great and the bad of visiting Regency society turn local life upside down...
False engagement – or true love?
From the age of thirteen, Jess has been brought up by her irascible and reclusive guardian, Lord Viscral. Sheltered but spirited, Jess finally rebels when his lordship decides out of the blue that she should marry his estranged son and heir, Jonathan, whom she has never even met. Jess immediately makes plans to run away with the assistance of her childhood sweetheart, and make her living running a hat shop.
But this is Blackhaven, where things rarely work out as planned. Lord Viscral has come to take the waters and to entice his black sheep of a son back into the fold, with Jess as bait. The black sheep, however, has no intention of being caught by either of them. Captain of a famous merchant ship, he only wishes to see that his father is well. However, when he encounters Jess out of her depth in a gaming hell, he is intrigued.
And sees the possibility of an alliance to punish his tyrannical parent.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. Jess’s sweetheart turns out to have feet of clay and brings more problems than he solves. Someone is stealing Jon’s cargo. Someone else is trying to kill Jess and Jon. Cousin Hector alternately scolds and proposes.
In the middle of it all, Bonaparte escapes from Elba, Jon begins to suspect blood is thicker than water, and worst of all, learns it’s far too easy to fall in love with Jess…
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Trying not to look as furtive as she felt, Miss Jessica Fordyce hurried down the staircase of the Blackhaven Hotel. She hadn’t expected the foyer to be so busy at this time of the evening and a twinge of curiosity threatened to deflect her from her purpose—but only for a moment.
The crowd in the foyer was made up largely of gentlemen, some of them very properly dressed in evening attire, many of them much more relaxed to the point where Lord Viscral, her uncle and guardian, would have refused to receive them. The few ladies scattered among them dazzled with bright color and jewels, and the sheer expanse of skin revealed by their brilliant gowns. It came to Jess, who had led a very sheltered life, that these must be London people, the cream of the ton who did not need to care for other people’s opinions.
Jess, her confidence boosted by wearing her first new evening gown in years, resolved not to care either. Looking neither right nor left, she walked directly to the reception desk and placed her letter in front of the clerk.
“Please see that this is sent with the next post.”
“Of course, Miss Fordyce.” He took the letter, placing it under the desk. “I’m sorry for the crowd, miss. If you need anything else, it might be best to ring.”
But then his lordship would have been disturbed by knocks on the door and even though he was in bed, he would have bullied poor Crabby into telling him that Jess had sent a letter without his knowledge.
“Thank you,” she said to the clerk and turned back the way she had come.
A gentleman had his quizzing glass trained directly at her, which she thought rude as she swept by. However, she couldn’t resist another glance at the merry throng who made their way to the back of the foyer and through a set of double doors to a hall beyond. Jess caught a glimpse of sparkling wine glasses being offered from trays by liveried servants, and a card table . From within, came the sound of laughter and happy voices.
Jess paused, suddenly aware of a longing she had never acknowledged—for the company of young people, for laughter and light-hearted, harmless fun. This trip to Blackhaven, for her guardian to take the healing waters, was the first time she had stayed away from Viscral Hall since she was twelve years old. Her only companions had been his irascible lordship and Miss Crabtree, her aging governess.
As she hesitated, wondering if she dared, she saw a lady in a stunning, crimson gown enter without an escort. It was hardly the dull, stuffy etiquette that she had been taught by Crabby and her uncle, but she had always thought they were old fashioned. In London, she was sure, things were done differently, as they clearly were here in Blackhaven.
And where was the harm in looking? She would only walk around, perhaps sit for a moment to observe. Because of the new evening gown of exquisite lilac muslin, she need not, for once, be ashamed of her dowdiness. Lord Viscral’s infamous scheme had at least that advantage.
With a surge of excitement, she took her foot off the first step, slipped through the throng, and entered the hall.
No one asked her for a voucher. The liveried servant even offered her a glass of champagne. She tried not to gape, for no one had ever given her champagne before.
She took a quick, surreptitious glance around, to be sure other ladies held glasses. Some did, but as she hesitated, a hand reached from the other side and took a glass from the tray.
“Allow me,” said its owner, a smiling, well-dressed gentleman of perhaps forty years, as he presented her with the glass.
“Thank you,” Jess murmured gratefully. Soothed by his respectable years, she took the glass from him.
“Something tells me this is your first visit to the gaming club,” he said with kindness. “Allow me to guide you to whichever table you choose.”
Ah, it was a gaming club. Despite the presence of other females, she began to doubt the wisdom of being here. However, without looking gauche or foolish, she could hardly turn and flee at once.
“Oh, I only wandered in from curiosity,” she told her new friend. “I shall not sit at any table.” She couldn’t. She didn’t have as much as a farthing in her reticule. “I shall just stroll around for a little.”
“Let me escort you,” the gentleman said. “I’m afraid there are all sorts of people at these events, and I would hate you to be subjected to insult.”
Even then, it struck her that if he was so concerned for her, he would surely have escorted her straight out the door. But since she really did want to look around, she decided it would be more comfortable with a kindly, unthreatening escort.
Various games were already in progress at several tables. Her escort helpfully informed her which were playing loo, hazard, vingt-et-un, faro, and even roulette. One thing she worked out for herself—the stakes were eye-wateringly high, at least to the country-bred ward of a somewhat close-fisted guardian.
“Will you play, sir?” she asked her companion.
Her gaze fell on the lady in the crimson dress whom she’d noticed before. Her face was skillfully painted and she almost hung around the neck of a young man at the hazard table. Jess had been stupidly mistaken in the status of these women. She was fairly sure now they were members of the ton, but of the mysterious demi-monde no one would talk about to her. Courtesans, she suspected.
“Will I play?” her escort repeated. “Why, only if you do.”
A groan went up around the hazard table. The good-looking, young man with the crimson lady gave a grin and swept up his winnings.
“Oh, how clever you are!” his companion exclaimed, clapping her hands.
“He has the luck of the devil,” one of the men retorted, standing up with ill grace.
“Today, I have,” the winner acknowledged. “Tomorrow it will be someone else’s. Madam, for bringing me good fortune.” He slipped a jaw-droppingly large roll of bills into the woman’s hand as he rose and carelessly kissed her cheek.
As he did so, he caught Jess gazing at him. Hastily, she looked away and answered her escort. “Oh, no, sir, I don’t play. And I believe I have seen enough.”
“Nonsense,” her companion said gaily. “The evening is young. Let us enjoy a little fun. Here are two vacant places. With me as your guide, you are bound to win!” He took hold of her hand, urging her toward the winner’s vacant chair.
“That’s impossible, sir, for I shall not play,” Jess said with a hint of sharpness, for she realized rather belatedly that none of these people were who she had imagined them to be. In short, she was out of her depth in a highly dubious situation where neither she nor her reputation were safe. She needed to leave immediately.
“Of course you shall,” smiled her escort, holding onto her hand when she would have withdrawn it. “Why else would you have come?”
“My hand, if you please,” she said, trying to cover her panic with haughtiness.
No one seemed to be paying them any attention—except the winner whose chair she was being urged to sit in. He had taken a few steps away from both the table and the crimson lady, but he turned now, frowning, his gaze falling to Jess’s captured hand. She gave another tug, which threatened to slop the champagne she still held, and quite suddenly, the winner’s hand closed over her captor’s wrist.
“I believe the lady spoke to you.”
“What business is it of yours?” her escort snarled with no trace now of the avuncular friendliness that had fooled her.
The younger man showed no sign of backing down. “Do you really want to take me on?” he said softly. “Really?”
As if burned, her escort dropped her hand, turned on his heel, and stalked away.
“Thank you,” Jess said in relief. “I was never more taken in . Odious man.”
“He is indeed.” Her savior had a shock of sun-bleached blond hair and unusually contrasting brown eyes that gleamed with lazy amusement. His skin was weather-beaten to a pleasant golden color. “I’m afraid we are all like that here, which rather begs the question, what on earth are you doing among us?”
“My besetting sin,” she said ruefully. “Curiosity.”
“Perhaps I should escort you to the door?”
“Perhaps,” she said doubtfully. “But I have just been fooled by the offer of one escort.”
Her savior laughed, a beguiling and infectious sound that made her smile without meaning to.
“At least you learn quickly,” he allowed.
“I will not stay and I will not play,” she warned him.
“Understood. I shall merely walk by your side and glare.”
“Actually, I can’t play,” she confided. “I don’t have as much as a penny with me.”
“They will take notes of promise.”
“That wouldn’t do anyone good either,” she said frankly. “I expect he was misled by the gown.” Aware she was talking too much, she blushed.
Her new companion did not appear to notice, merely led her between the tables in the direction of the door. He was young, tall, and broad shouldered, certainly, but there was nothing obviously threatening about him. And yet, he had faced down her older, less savory escort.
“Was he frightened of you?” she blurted.
The young man shrugged. “I don’t care. Weasels like him can only operate in the shadows. He wouldn’t want any fuss. Are you staying at the hotel?”
“Yes,” Jess replied. “My uncle believes it to be a respectable establishment.”
“Oh, it is. The gaming club is an occasional aberration, I believe, kept separate from more polite residents.”
“Then you are not respectable?”
“Not remotely,” he said promptly.
They were approaching the door, and she turned toward him. “Well, I am still grateful to you! Thank you… I do not even know your name.”
“Barnaby.” He was gazing down at her rather fixedly, a man with a subtle air of authority, a very physical presence that had easily defeated the ruffian who had meant to fleece her. A little jolt of attraction shook her, shortening her breath.
“Good night, Mr. Barnaby,” she managed.
A frown flickered across his brow, melting quickly into a smile. “Good night, Miss…?”
“I don’t think I should tell you that,” she said frankly.
“Very wise,” he agreed. “On the other hand, you have not yet had even a sip of your champagne.”
“I’ve never tasted it before,” she confided, eyeing the glass she had forgotten.
He swiped a glass from the waiter hovering around the door. “Then I’ll drink to your health, Miss Mystery.”
He clinked his glass against hers and took a sip.
Recklessly, she took one, too, and wrinkled her nose. “I thought it would taste better.”
“It grows on you,” Mr. Barnaby assured her. “What brings you to Blackhaven?”
“My uncle’s health.” Testing Mr. Barnaby’s advice, she took another doubtful sip. “He has come to take the waters.”
“Is he ill?”
Merely insane, she thought with a resurgence of indignation. Swallowing it, she answered more diplomatically. “I believe he begins to feel his years. But mostly, I think, the waters are his excuse to reconnect with family.”
“You have relations in Blackhaven?”
“He believes so, but on what grounds, I have no idea.” She bit her unruly lips to prevent any further ill-natured confidences.
Mr. Barnaby’s gaze followed her gesture and lifted once more to her eyes. Behind the amiable friendliness, she glimpsed an implacable, cool hardness that was both intriguing and alarming.
Nervously, she sipped her champagne. It tasted better than she remembered, so she took another, larger mouthful. “And you, sir? Do you live in Blackhaven?”
“Lord, no. I’m merely stopping for a night on my travels.”
“That sounds exciting,” Jess said with undisguised jealousy. “Do you travel far?”
“I hope to.”
“You are taking advantage of the peace—to travel for leisure, I mean.”
“Oh, it is not leisure. I am a seaman.”
“You are an officer of the Royal Navy?”
“No.” His gaze held hers. “Merely the captain of a merchant ship.”
She felt her eyes widen, for he was young to be the captain of any vessel. He raised his glass in a faintly sardonic toast and they both drank.
“Then you must sail all over the world,” she observed.
His lips curved very slightly. “You sound envious.”
“I am. Women—ladies—are so constrained by propriety, doomed to dullness and needlework, morning calls and marriage,” she finished with loathing.
Captain Barnaby blinked.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, mortified by her outburst.
But the captain only smiled faintly. “You do not wish to be married?” He indicated a chair near the door. “Ever?”
She sat without really meaning to and drank another mouthful of champagne. She rather liked the way the bubbles burst on her tongue with such unusual flavor. “I don’t know about ever. But I would at least like to choose my husband.”
“That does seem a bare minimum of requirement,” he agreed, pulling up another chair and sitting so that she was shielded from most prying eyes in the room. “Does your family have other ideas?”
“My uncle,” she admitted. “That is, I call him uncle but he is more of a distant cousin. He is my guardian.”
“You hate him,” Barnaby observed.
She sighed. “No, I don’t. I’m quite fond of the old gentleman, really, but it is the outside of enough to expect me to marry a man I have never met!”
“I’m not sure that’s even possible.”
She laughed, and was pleased to see his eyes smile in response. “Silly! I would of course have to meet him eventually.”
“And who is it your uncle wishes you to marry?”
Jess curled her lips. “His son.”
“Ah. You must be an heiress,” he said lightly.
“You would think so, considering the enthusiasm my uncle has for the project,” Jess agreed, raising her eyes from her empty glass. “But I’m not. I don’t have a bean. It’s his son who will inherit my uncle’s fortune.” She sighed. “It’s his way of looking after me, but he cannot see how nonsensical it is.”
“You have, perhaps, another husband in mind?”
A warm flush rose to her cheeks. Perhaps it was the champagne. “Not exactly. I would rather be like you and sail the seven seas. But I doubt I could manage it unless I pretended to be a boy, and I’m not convinced anyone would believe me.”
His lips twitched, and she laughed.
“You’re right. I could not carry it off, and besides, I was so pleased to have this gown—even for such an infamous reason—that I don’t think I would enjoy being a boy for very long.”
“Enlighten me,” he said, apparently fascinated. “For what infamous reason do you possess this most becoming gown?”
“Why, it is meant to snare my prodigal cousin, of course. Naturally, he would not wish to marry a dowdy female. But dress her up in her one fashionable gown and he will obviously give up his wicked ways and throw his hand and fortune at my feet.” Another breath of laughter escaped her at this vision. “Well, unless his hand is detachable, I doubt he would throw it at my feet, but you know what I mean.”
“That is certainly an infamous reason to give you a gown. Perhaps it is more infamous that you don’t have more.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I used to think so, but to be honest, I have no occasions on which to wear them. We live very quietly, and neither the vicar nor Mrs. Bannerman care what I wear.”
A faint frown creased his brow. “They are your only society? Apart from your uncle?”
“And Crabby, my governess. Well, I am too old to have a governess now, so I suppose she is my companion. But she does not care how I dress, either. For one thing, her own gowns are always worse.”
“I suppose they would have to be.”
“I don’t see why,” Jess argued. “For while she may be my governess, at least she has a salary, while I have no money at all.”
“Well, if the governess is wealthier than you, perhaps you should just grit your teeth and marry the cousin.”
“Never!” she exclaimed
Captain Barnaby looked lazily amused. “You have taken him in dislike?”
“I’ve never met him, remember?” she said. “Or at least, I might have once when I was a child, but I can’t recall him. In any case, he hasn’t been near his father in seven years, which doesn’t endear him to me.”
“Or to his father, I imagine.”
She sighed. “Well, it is difficult to endear oneself to my uncle, for he is a very grumpy old gentleman. I’m not surprised they quarreled, though I’ve no idea why or what it was about. But if I was lucky enough to have a father, I wouldn’t spend seven years away from him without a word, whatever he had said or done to me. And he must know that underneath it all, the old gentleman loves him.”
“Why would you imagine that?” Captain Barnaby asked, as though fascinated.
“Because I have lived with him these seven years,” she said bluntly. “I know him very well.”
“But you don’t know the son.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Nor do I want to. And not just because I think he must be excessively cold and unpleasant, but because I can’t imagine he will like to come home and be immediately thrust into matrimony with me!”
“Perhaps you underestimate your own charms.”
She laughed. “It’s true I do now have a gown to be proud of! No, I am sure he will wish to run as far from this arrangement as I do.”
“Then you are saved,” Barnaby said.
“No, I’m not. Because if my cousin doesn’t marry me, the old gentleman will leave the bulk of his fortune to an orphanage. Oh dear, I am talking too much. Do you think I could have another glass of champagne?”
His eyes, which had hardened on her behalf, now glinted with ready laughter. “You could, but I really don’t think you should. Not if you want to maintain any discretion whatsoever.”
Appalled, she thought hastily back over the conversation and decided she had given nothing away that could identify any of the players in her story. On the other hand, he was probably right. Her tongue had definitely become too loose. It might have been the champagne or it might have been the captain’s oddly beguiling encouragement. She did like the way his eyes laughed, and she couldn’t recall anyone ever being quite so interested in her conversation. It was quite…flattering.
“Before I finally escort you to the door,” he said, “do tell me your plan.”
“To escape the cold and unpleasant cousin. You cannot persuade me that you don’t have a plan. One that does not involve dressing as a boy and running away to sea.”
“I think I would like to be a milliner.”
He blinked. “A milliner? Now you have surprised me.”
“You needn’t say it like that. I assure you, I have made any number of pretty hats out of the most unlikely materials, for myself and Crabby and the maids, and even the vicar’s wife.”
“I beg your pardon. Do you mean to begin as an apprentice?”
“No, I mean to borrow money from my old friend Claud and pay him back when I’m successful. I did think to have an exclusive little shop in London, but now I think Blackhaven might be better.”
“I’m afraid to ask why.”
“Less competition. Though less potential custom, also. Still, I am told Blackhaven is always expanding.”
“And your uncle would permit this?”
“Well, no, of course he will not. I shall have to run away and then return to Blackhaven when he’s gone.”
“Don’t you think he will worry?”
“I think he will be mad as fire,” she said frankly. “But I will send him word that I am well.”
Thoughtfully, Captain Barnaby rubbed the back of his head. “It seems excessive, just to avoid an advantageous marriage.”
“I suppose I want to teach the old gentleman a lesson,” she admitted. “And prove I can live alone quite successfully.”
“With money borrowed from a stranger.”
“Claud is not a stranger,” she protested. “He is my best and oldest friend. In fact, we were betrothed when I was thirteen.”
“Ah, I see! Then he is the real reason you do not wish to marry the cold and unpleasant cousin. Your heart and your hand are already spoken for.”
Although she felt the heat spill into her face, there was enough mockery in his voice to annoy her. “I am not so naïve as to imagine any such thing,” she said with dignity. “I was thirteen years old. But I know he will wish to help me for the sake of our old friendship.”
“And there is always the possibility that you will still want to marry each other, and then you need not consider the millinery or the cousin or your old gentleman.”
Since this had been at the back of her mind, only half-acknowledged, she glared at him until he laughed and threw his hands up in mock surrender. “Don’t eat me! It was just a thought. But nothing to do with me. I only wish you well.”
“Thank you.” She rose to her feet.
He stood at once, too, and strolled with her to the doors. As they closed behind them, blocking out most of the noise and raucous laughter, she cast him a quick, rueful glance. “I suppose you think my plans and I are all very silly.”
“On the contrary, I rather admire you,” he said unexpectedly. “In fact, if you and Claud wish to run away in the next two or three weeks, I’ll give the pair of you passage to South America as my wedding gift.”
“Now I know you’re making fun of me,” she said without rancor.
A breath of laughter escaped him. “Not at all. I’ll be happy to do it. Providing I like Claud.”
He paused at the pillar that blocked both the reception desk and the back hall from view, and she tilted her head to gaze up at him.
“You’re a very odd person,” she said frankly.
“I am,” he agreed. “But then, so are you, in a much more lovable way. Take care who you trust, little bird.” Without further warning, he swooped, dropping a kiss full on her parted lips.
Heat and shock surged up from her toes. The sheer novelty of warm, firm lips pressed to hers made her gasp. And then, before she even had time to be outraged, it was over. With a flash of white teeth, he winked and strode across the foyer to the front door of the hotel.
Anger and shame at his careless treatment fought with some other emotion she didn’t care to think about, let alone name. Her heart thundering, she hurried to the stairs and ran back to the suite of rooms hired by her uncle, praying she had not been missed.