The Wicked Husband  -  Blackhaven Brides, Book 4

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...

Notorious young rakehell, Lord Daxton, wakes up in Blackhaven with a monumental hangover – and a wife...

Willa Blake, his old childhood friend and poor relation of his sworn enemy, has her own reasons for eloping with him to Gretna Green – not least the fact that she’s been in love with him since she was fourteen years old. Now they both have to face the consequences of their hasty marriage, which include not only scandal but attempted murder, accusations of theft and several duels, not to mention the fury of Daxton’s mistress and the determination of his mother to have the marriage annulled.

Yet among all the chaos and unexpected fun of life with Daxton, Willa’s childish crush deepens into adult love. But will Dax, a man of impulse and passion, ever face up to his responsibilities, let alone return her love?

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Read an excerpt below

Chapter One

 

Willa had only just dropped into bed when Haines, her aunt’s maid, barged into her chamber.

“Sir Ralph sent you this,” Haines uttered, her lips stiff with disapproval as she dropped the paper onto Willa’s narrow cot.

If she’d had the energy, Willa would have groaned. She hadn’t even had time to blow out the candle, yet alone snatch a nap. Her aunt and cousin had both retired late, despite their apparently afflicted health. And both had thrown sewing tasks at her at the last minute—literally thrown in her cousin Elvira’s case—to be completed by the morning. Since the morning would bring a hundred other duties, Willa had had little choice but to sew on the gown’s new trim and mend the bonnet before she went to sleep.

Now, fighting through her exhaustion, Willa unfolded the paper Haines had brought, and held it closer to the candle.

Bring the purse, immediately.

Willa frowned. It was definitely her cousin Ralph’s writing, and the purse could only mean the one he’d recently given his mother with her allowance for her stay in Blackhaven. He’d been generous, since his plan had been to solve all the family’s financial problems by offering for the Duke of Kelburn’s plain spinster of a daughter. Unfortunately, instead of being grateful for her good fortune, the duke’s daughter had ruined his plan by marrying someone else before he got here. No doubt he now wanted the allowance money back, though why it had to be in the middle of the night was beyond Willa’s understanding.

“You’re to be quick,” Haines instructed, curling her thin lips. “And you’re to go yourself. The messenger was most particular.” Haines sounded outraged, though not on Willa’s behalf. She still suspected Willa of having designs on Sir Ralph—which was both ludicrous and ironic.

“Messenger,” Willa repeated in dismay. “Why, where is Sir Ralph?”

“In the hotel. The back-room downstairs. The hotel is hosting some kind of party.”

“Party?” Willa stared at her. “I’m supposed to dress for a party? At this hour?”

Haines sneered. “Hardly. You’re a messenger, not a guest. Just take him the purse and leave.”

Why me? she thought drearily as she hauled herself out of bed and reached for the dull, gray, every-day gown she’d only just taken off. Because, no doubt, she was everyone’s punching bag when anything went wrong. Somehow, it would be her fault that Ralph’s chosen heiress had had the good sense to marry someone else.

Haines hadn’t even stayed to help with her laces, so she flung an old shawl around her shoulders, thrust her feet into shoes, and crammed her unruly hair up at the back of her head with three pins. 

Five minutes, she told herself as she located the purse in the desk drawer and left the suite. Five minutes and then I can be asleep…

The hotel foyer was still well lit and the reception desk guarded by one sleepy clerk who, when she asked for Sir Ralph Shelby, pointed her to the double doors at the far end of the hall.

Four minutes, perhaps only three and a half if I run all the way back upstairs.

She pushed open one door and felt her insides shrivel.

A wall of noise greeted her—voices that were too loud, laugher that was too vulgar. The air was thick with cigar smoke and the smell of brandy, but through it, she made out the gaming tables, the boldly dressed women and the men taking liberties.

This was not the sort of party any lady should attend, let alone be seen at.

For a moment, Willa felt incensed at the young man who had directed her there, for no one would ever have so much as admitted this party’s existence to her aunt or Cousin Elvira. But of course, this was not the clerk’s fault. It was Ralph’s.

Ralph’s own valet should have brought him the money which he was obviously about to throw away at the gaming tables. But then, that would not have humiliated Willa. He would never stop, she realized. His vengeance would be petty but utterly relentless. She could look forward to a lifetime of this.

He saw her at once, as though he’d been watching the door, and she knew she was right when his lip twitched once with satisfaction.

“My stake has arrived,” he said clearly into the background buzz, which is when Willa saw the man lounging across the table from her cousin.

Her heart lurched, depriving her of breath.

Charles Dacre, Viscount Daxton.

He hadn’t changed much in the eight years or so since she’d last seen him. Perhaps his face had lengthened a little, emphasizing his cheekbones and determined chin. His always lean body had filled out impressively, with muscle, she could only assume, since there still appeared to be no hint of fat on him.

And perhaps the disorder of his golden locks owed more to artifice than the innate carelessness of the youth she recalled. But then again, perhaps not, for his necktie was loose and his coat unfastened, giving an impression of disarray. He looked utterly disreputable. Which he was.

Angelically fair and diabolically handsome, young Lord Daxton was instantly, uniquely recognizable. These days he carried with him an unsavory reputation for bad, hedonistic and downright dangerous behavior. He was, in fact, an unmitigated rakehell.

 

Inevitably, a girl sat on his lap while he whispered no doubt outrageous blandishments in her ear. A lump rose in Willa’s throat, not really because she envied the unknown woman his very temporary attentions, but because he would never really see Willa at all.

 

“Rosa’s got her claws well into Daxton,” a woman’s uncultured voice said somewhere to Willa’s left, in what she clearly imagined were low and confiding tones.

“Or the other way around,” another voice muttered.

“Don’t you like him? He’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen. Like an angel.”

“Until you look into his eyes,” the other woman disagreed. “They’re hard and wild and cruel.”

Not cruel, Willa thought, just a little desperately. He’s never been cruel…

Perhaps fortunately, Ralph put an end to her helpless eavesdropping.

“Here,” he snapped as though Willa were a servant, which she was, in fact if not in name. Poor relation, companion, whatever the title, it translated as unpaid drudge.

Every head now turned toward Willa as she walked into the room. Her cheeks burned as drunken voices speculated as to her relationship with Shelby.

“Not his usual style.”

“Somewhat dull feathers for a bird of paradise, what?”

“Does Shelby never tire of wagering his women away to Daxton?”

“Oh, the last one wasn’t wagered, whatever Shelby says. Daxton stole her, which is why Shelby hates his guts.”

“Well, by tonight’s luck, he’s certainly going to be losing this one, too. And you know, she probably scrubs up pretty well. Who the devil is she?”

Willa’s face flamed with anger. It wasn’t so much at the insults for, what else were they meant to think? What other woman, except a servant or a mistress, was Ralph likely to have roused from bed to bring him money at this time of night? That her cousin had deliberately put her in this humiliating position, was unforgivable.

The rumors would undoubtedly be dashed tomorrow, when her position with regard to Lady Shelby would be clear, but in these moments, she had to endure this ignominy. She couldn’t even look at Lord Daxton.

Without glancing to right or left, she walked straight to Ralph and set the purse on the table in front of him. He was drunk, too. His muddy eyes were glazed and very slightly unfocused as he regarded her, and his face was an unbecoming bright red. Although the latter might have been due to his cravat being tied too tightly around his stocky neck. His too-high shirt points were wilting.

 

“As you requested,” she murmured, although the note had been more of a command. She turned immediately to walk back out again.

Two more minutes and I’ll be safe in bed…

“Wait,” Ralph ordered. There was peculiar relish in his curt voice. Oh yes, he was enjoying her shame.

Schooling her expression to impassivity, she turned back to him, her hands folded in front of her, her eyes focused only on the purse as he looked through the contents. For some reason, she imagined Lord Daxton’s gaze on her face.

Unhurriedly, Ralph finished his perusal and pulled the strings to close the purse.

“Take it to Lord Daxton,” he commanded.

Willa wanted the ground to open up and swallow her. She most assuredly did not want to be seen by Daxton like this. And by Ralph’s s peculiar instructions—he could easily have pushed the purse across the table without even standing up—he was forcing the viscount to see her.

Of course. Ralph never forgot. Once, when they were all children, Daxton had stood up for her, against the older, larger Ralph, and come off best, too. Now Ralph was showing him his protegee in all her humiliation and helplessness. Ralph’s servant, and by implication, his plaything.

She wanted to close her eyes, because foolishly, she didn’t want Daxton to think that of her. Instead, keeping her expression carefully still, she picked up the purse and walked around the table. Men and rather daringly dressed women made way for her. She caught the odd snigger and amused, less than complimentary phrases as she passed. Her one hope now, was that Daxton was too preoccupied with his pretty lap-girl to look at her. He had no reason to recognize Willa, or even remember her.

But the girl no longer sat in his lap. In fact, causing something close to panic in her breast, he rose to his feet and bowed in Willa’s direction.

Startled, her gaze flew at last to his.

Dear God, if the boy had been engaging, the man was overwhelming. It wasn’t just his height or his undoubted beauty. It was his sheer presence, hitting her in the stomach like a blow that thrilled instead of hurt. Everything about him was male and hard, and not familiar at all.

Now that she was closer, she could see the faint but hectic flush to his cheeks, the glitter to his eyes that betrayed how much he’d been drinking. But there was no hope for her in that. The icily sparkling blue eyes bored into hers, devouring her without obvious recognition, searching, though for what, she couldn’t begin to guess. But she discerned the flash of anger and contempt in his face. His upper lip curled.

Lifting her chin, she held his gaze, refusing to give any sign of her humiliation before him of all people. She had done nothing wrong. She was here from no choice of her own. And he had no idea who she was.

He reached out and took the purse, his fingers warm as they brushed hers. He tossed it on the table without looking at it, and quite deliberately clasped her hand. Her fingers jumped in his, but before she could react, he stood aside, handing her into the chair he’d so recently vacated.

The courtesy deprived her of breath all over again. Not that she could stay here, because she couldn’t.

“You may go,” Ralph snapped.

And abruptly, perversely, Willa had had enough. She sat, merely to disobey her cousin, and was rewarded by Daxton’s flashing grin. That, she remembered. One of his eyes even closed, before he hooked another chair leg with his foot and sat beside her, reaching for the purse.

For an instant, warmth flooded her because at last she perceived the mischievous boy she’d known. And because the contempt in his eyes hadn’t been for her, but for Ralph. It made disobedience all the sweeter, although she had no doubt she would pay for it.

Nor was she silly enough to be flattered by Daxton’s silent invitation. She knew it was all part of this bizarre phase of his long-standing quarrel with Ralph. He’d accorded her a courtesy her cousin most assuredly had not, and people had noticed. Whoever they imagined her to be, Ralph had been shown up as a boor.

“Go?” Daxton drawled, throwing himself into the chair next to her and pulling open the purse. “Is the lady not included in your stake?”

Daxton was being deliberately insulting, provoking a fight if he could.

“Of course not,” Ralph said coldly.

Daxton rifled through the coins and pushed them across the table. “Pity. She seems to be all you have of value. Play then.”

Willa sat rigidly at Daxton’s side, wishing she had never given into her anger against Ralph. She’d only made her intolerable position worse. She waited a few moments until everyone seemed lost in the tension of the game. Then, quietly, she began to stand, meaning to exit unnoticed.

Abruptly, Daxton’s left hand shot out and closed over hers on the edge of the table. “Don’t go.”

Astonishment paralyzed her for an instant. She caught a glimpse of Ralph’s dark, furious face as he threw the dice. She’d had enough. “I have no desire to see you bring my family to ruin over a stupid game of chance.”

The blue eyes turned on her. “Why not? They’re pretty much ruining you.”

So, he had known her. And he’d noticed. He’d always noticed. “I have a home,” she said calmly.

A waiter appeared at her elbow, offering a tray containing a glass of sparkling wine.

“No, thank you,” she said.

But with a hint of impatience, Daxton seized it and placed it in front of her. “Stay and drink with me. I’ll be good.”

“No, you won’t. And I won’t be a weapon in your quarrel.”

His head jerked round, as though he were genuinely startled. Then a rueful smile curled his lips. “I suppose I deserve that. It’s all got muddled. I’m a trifle disguised.”

“Never,” she marveled.

His grin broadened and then his volatile attention returned to the dice.

“What are you even doing here in Blackhaven?” she blurted.

He frowned. It might have been an effort of remembrance. “Going to Scotland. Why are you here?”

“For my aunt’s health. And my cousin Elvira’s. She is enceinte.”

“He ain’t here for anyone’s health.” Daxton jerked his head at Ralph.

It was tempting to tell him the story of the heiress. She bit her lip instead. Daxton spared her a quizzical glance.

“What’s in Scotland?” she asked hastily.

“No idea. Never been.” He returned to the dice, but not before she’d glimpsed something grim, almost desperate in his drink-clouded eyes. And although this would have been an opportune moment to slip away, she didn’t.

Daxton had always been more than the wild, reckless boy everyone had thought him. And now that he’d grown up into this notorious rakehell, she didn’t doubt that the boy she remembered was still in there. That dark look troubled her, and at the same time made sense of this ruinous game he played with Ralph.

She knew without being told that Daxton had baited her cousin into it. He was spoiling for a fight, and Ralph had likely appeared at just the right moment. She’d no idea how much Daxton had won from him, but she was sure it was enough to make life difficult for the Shelby household. At the very least, his rudeness in actually counting Ralph’s money was surely grounds for a duel.

And so, in spite of the harm it would do her reputation, and despite the punishment she knew Ralph would heap upon her for disobeying him, let alone for sitting with the enemy, she stayed where she was. She even found herself distractedly sipping from the champagne glass. Perhaps it was the wine that gave her the courage to stay.

The game was over quickly, the contents of the purse soon back in Daxton’s possession.

“Your health, Shelby,” the viscount said cheerfully, raising his glass. “Very glad I ran into you.” As he drained the glass and reached once more for the brandy bottle, his restless gaze fell on Willa. His delighted smile was not altogether free of surprise, which at least kept her from feeling too flattered.

“Willie,” he said. “You’re still here.”

“You only ever called me that to annoy me.”

“True. I suppose I should call you Miss Blake, now.” He sprang to his feet. “Walk with me.”

She cast a quick, indecisive glance at Ralph, who was desperately pretending not to feel either the loss of his money or his defeat by the enemy. He was strolling among the other tables, observing the play which had all but stopped for a while as everyone had watched Daxton annihilate him.

“Dash it, Will, do something for yourself,” Daxton said with sudden violence.

She glanced at him, brows raised. “I thought I was to do it for you.”

He scowled before a sudden grin smoothed his brow. “That’s how I remember you. Be kind to me, then. Stroll with me to the door. You shouldn’t be here at all, should you?”

The girl glaring at her from the wall—the one who’d been sitting in his lap when Willa first arrived—clearly agreed.

 

“No.” Willa rose to her feet. She took a deep breath and lowered her voice further. “Very well, I’ll walk with you on one condition. Give me back the purse I brought. You don’t need the money, and Ralph has already been humiliated. It isn’t his money. It’s my aunt’s.”

Daxton blinked, then stared at her as if he imagined he’d misheard her. Then a laugh broke from him. “Damn it, I must be drunker than I thought. You strike a mean bargain, but it’s a deal.”

She let out her breath in a rush, relieved that he could still be reasoned with. “Thank you.” She took his proffered arm, wondering what on earth the other guests would make of the gesture. Nothing, presumably, if he merely bowed her out of the door. And in this company, she was glad of the escort.

“Bring your champagne,” Daxton advised. “You might as well have what fun you can on the way, and in this state, I suspect I’m just not intoxicating enough.”

“I don’t recall your being so modest,” she said wryly.

“I was expecting to be refuted,” he mourned. “But you’ve let me down. Are you happy with them, Will?”

She didn’t pretend to misunderstand him. “I’m as happy as I’d be anywhere else. I have a home.”

“So you said.”

At least he remembered that much of their conversation. He didn’t lurch either, but remained perfectly steady as he walked beside her.

 

“You can’t win, can you?” he said abruptly. “Even if you run away. You’d always be somebody’s drudge.”

“I’ve thought about it,” she admitted.

“And yet here you still are. Better the devil you know?”

“Something like that.”

“You should marry a rich man.”

She curled her lip. “A different form of drudgery.”

Daxton laughed. “Only you would think so. Isn’t it the ambition of every well-born girl to marry a rich man?”

“I think it depends on the girl. And very largely on the particular rich man.”

He frowned, veering away from the fast-approaching door. “That’s it!” he exclaimed, staring at her. “Why didn’t I think of this before?”

 

“Because you weren’t foxed before?”

He waved that aside. “I’m always foxed. Which ain’t exactly selling the idea to you, but you must see it would answer perfectly.”

 

“What would?” she asked.

“Marriage,” he said impatiently.

“What marriage?”

“Yours,” he replied. “To me.”

REVIEWS:

"I really love this series from Mary Lancaster! She is an awesome writer. Her stories are heartfelt and detailed, you get lost in them... a spirited and sometimes humorous love story" - Amazon review

"a fascinating, unpredictable, story...  filled with drama, intrigue, and emotion." - Amazon review

"a delightful fun read, with quick-witted banter." - Amazon review

"I think this the best of the series... it captures my attention right away... fun humor in almost every part of the book" - Amazon review

"What a fun story... so easy to love the characters."  - Amazon review

All content Copyright Mary Lancaster, 2017.

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