The Wicked Lady - Blackhaven Brides, Book 2
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
The scandalous widow…and the curate?
Newly widowed, wicked Kate Crowmore is in trouble. Scandal has broken over her head and someone is trying to kill her. When she seeks refuge in Blackhaven, she doesn’t expect a clergyman to be the solution to both these problems!
Tristram Grant is not just any clergyman. The cast-off, illegitimate son of an earl, and one-time army officer of great promise, the charismatic new curate is making his mark in Blackhaven. As soon as he sees the beautiful, defiant Kate, he sets his heart on her. And he is used to achieving his goals. But Kate, finally free of a disastrous marriage that almost broke her, has no intention of marrying anyone ever again - supposing she survives the attempts on her life.
Grant’s courtship, like his pursuit of her enemies, is unorthodox, fun and curiously seductive. However, he has secrets of his own and when he deliberately frees a French prisoner of war, Kate realizes he could be more dangerous than she imagined.
Then, as if life isn’t complicated enough, her old scandal catches us with her again, in the shape of Lord Vernon, whom the world imagines is her lover – and he wants to marry her too…
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Read an excerpt below
"Kate and Tristram are an odd but delightful pairing...such an engrossing duo that lovers of period romance will not be able to put this one down." - In D Tale
"a powerful, emotional journey you won't want to miss! ...tenderly poignant romance" -
"kept me reading and laughing to the end"
"The sparks between these two, and the banter were perfection!"
"I just loved this book and can't wait until the next book comes out!" - Amazon reader reviews
Tristram Grant stepped into the glittering ballroom.
“Grant!! a familiar voice called.
Dr. Lampton, the town physician, and his wife were seated opposite the door. Since it was they who had invited him to come, he edged his way around the dance floor, smiling and murmuring greetings to the regular members of his congregation whom he recognized.
“You came,” Mrs. Lampton observed in delight, as he bowed and took his seat beside her. “So, what do you think of our devilish entertainment?”
“Be reasonable, my dear,” Dr. Lampton said wryly. “When has he ever called anything devilish?”
The Lamptons were Grant’s only friends in Blackhaven who didn’t attend church. The doctor was a self-confessed, free-thinker.
“I’m very happy to be here,” Grant said pacifically. “And I hope you will dance with me,” he added to Mrs. Lampton.
“I insist upon it,” she said at once. “Now, who else would you like me introduce you to?”
Grant blinked. “No one in particular. I know most of them already.”
Lampton grinned at him. “You haven’t caught on yet, have you? You’re here so Mary can find you a wife.”
Grant couldn’t help it. He laughed. “I’m a curate. Supposing I could afford a wife, who would have me?”
“Most of them,” Mrs. Lampton said stoutly. “See how they watch you from behind their fans?”
“No,” Grant said, refusing to remove his gaze from her face. “I am quite content with the view I have.”
Mrs. Lampton clapped her hands. “Oh well said, sir! You are a natural.”
Dr. Lampton poured him some wine from a bottle by his elbow. “Drink up,” he advised.
His wife leaned forward confidentially. “Now, Mr. Grant, which young lady has caught your attention over the two months you’ve been with us?”
“I find them all most charming.”
“He does,” Lampton agreed. “And it’s my belief he doesn’t need your interference to find himself a wife.”
“Then why doesn’t he have one?” Mrs. Lampton asked with an air of triumph.
“Because he doesn’t want one?” Lampton suggested.
“Nonsense. Every vicar should have a wife.”
“I’m not the vicar,” Grant pointed out.
“You are while Mr. Hoag is away … and if he obtains the promotion he’s hoping for, who knows? I’m sure Lord Braithwaite will like you.”
“Everybody likes him,” Lampton said wryly.
“Why do I feel at fault here?” Grant murmured, raising his glass.
“Because you make the rest of us look bad,” Lampton said at once. “Here you are, upright and handsome, good-natured, compassionate, hard-working on behalf of the poor, with just the right manners to extract donations from the rich. Apparently, content in any company from drunken sailors to aristocracy. And the ladies, from old biddies to young maidens, drool after you. Of course you are at fault.”
“At least I don’t tell lies.”
“Neither do I,” Lampton said at once. “Now, for the love of peace, point out the most deserving young lady to my wife, so that she might present you and relax. And don’t tell her you’re already acquainted with everyone in Blackhaven, because, trust me, you’re not. Mary is.”
Mrs. Lampton frowned quellingly at her husband and returned to the matter in hand. “It can be a stranger, a visitor,” she said encouragingly. “In case you don’t wish to single out a girl of your congregation just at first.”
Lampton sat back with a grin, watching Grant for signs of discomfort. Grant, however, was quite happy to dance, since he’d come to a ball. On the other hand, he saw no harm in teasing.
“Miss Bramley,” Mrs. Lampton suggested. “Her mother is taking the waters and she is such a charming girl.”
“She is,” Grant agreed. “But her gown is too white.”
Mrs. Lampton pursed her lips at his frivolity. “Miss Bainbridge. Being no longer a debutante, her gown is not white, but she is a most intelligent—and pretty—young lady.”
“Her mother terrifies me.”
“No, she doesn’t! Miss Smallwood, then. So sweet and good-natured.”
“And young. Too young.”
“Mr. Grant, are you taking this seriously?”
“Not remotely,” Grant admitted, just as the most beautiful woman imaginable walked into the ballroom alone.
She was breathtaking. Raven-black hair most elegantly styled to frame a face of exquisite beauty. Perfect, creamy white skin and full, rosy lips. Huge, dark eyes that seemed at once to smolder and yet regard the world with distant, wry amusement. Surely a creature of fascinating contradictions.
“For example,” Grant said, without taking his eyes off her, “I would be most grateful for an introduction to that lady.”
“That lady?” Mrs. Lampton said in dismay. “Oh, dear me, no, you wouldn’t. Trust me, she would do no good to your career or your marital hopes. That is Lady Crowmore.”
Grant spared her a blank glance. “Should I know the name?”
“She was here before, one of the earl’s house guests for the castle ball in the spring. Since then, her husband died. Does she look like a widow to you?”
He had to allow that she didn’t. There was no trace of black about her dress. She wore a gown of deep, dusky pink and diamonds winked around her slender throat and dangled from her delectable ear lobes. Other jewels sparkled in her hair and in the clinging gauze folds of her gown. Her gloves were exactly the same shade of pink.
Grant’s were not the only eyes drawn to her. In fact, nearly everyone was looking, covertly or overtly, and conversation died away to almost nothing. If it hadn’t been for the orchestra continuing its waltz, the ballroom would have been eerily silent.
The radiant Lady Crowmore appeared not to notice, making her way around the edges of the dance floor. She accepted a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and her lips moved in a brief murmur of thanks. Oddly, that was what decided Grant.
“But I don’t know her,” Mrs. Lampton objected. “Why do you have to pick the one woman in the room I’ve never met? And whom you can’t possibly marry.”
“I can introduce myself,” Grant said calmly. “There are, after all, some benefits in being a clergyman. Excuse me.”
As he moved among the groups sitting and standing around the dance floor, he couldn’t help overhearing some of the remarks from those also watching the beautiful Lady Crowmore’s entrance.
“Look at her! Not a hint of mourning!”
“My dear, she has no shame.”
“Considering where they found her to break the news of Crowmore’s death…”
“Does she even have an escort? She’s quite alone.”
“What is she doing here? Is she even going to speak to anyone?”
The criticism nearly all came from women, although no gentlemen sought her gaze or her company. Except young Bernard Muir, who, kicking his heels between his stepmother and his aunt, suddenly leapt to his feet, grinning. His hand began to lift just as Lady Crowmore perversely veered to the left away from him, and almost walked into Grant.
They both came to an abrupt halt. The lady’s eyes looked somewhat startled as they met his, but they didn’t fall as she waited for him to stand aside. Brave and beautiful dark eyes, uncowed by convention or expectation. On the contrary, they seemed to challenge the world head-on, and yet held a hint of mystery as well as some open, almost cynical honesty. Something in Grant leapt. It felt like recognition. Certainly, on a much more basic level, his blood stirred.
“Forgive me,” he said mildly. “I always seem to be in someone’s way.”
“The fault is trivial,” she replied, “but clearly mine. Excuse me.”
Her voice was enchanting, too—low, modulated, with just a hint of fashionable drawl. But since he was so uncivilly slow in moving aside, she began to walk around him.
“Perhaps you’d allow me to escort you to … wherever you’re going?” he suggested, turning belatedly aside.
Her lips curved into a sardonic smile. “To the devil, sir? I could not ask it of you.”
“Precisely my subject of expertise,” he said at once. “I might be your best protection.”
“Oh, I don’t need protection. The devil and I are old friends.”
“Then I might at least surprise him.”
Her step paused. She turned her head to face him once more, a hint of amusement in her deliberately distant gaze. She raised her perfectly arched eyebrows quizzically.
“Being a clergyman,” he explained.
A breath of surprised laughter fell from her lips. “Truly?”
“Truly. Tristram Grant, curate of St. Andrew’s Church here in Blackhaven.”
She cocked her head to one side, consideringly. “Are you trying to save my soul, Master Curate?”
“Actually, I’m trying to dance with you, but if your soul is in need, I am at your disposal.”
The amusement in her eyes grew more pronounced. “You’re a very odd clergyman. But I’m disposed to like you, so I shall do you the favor of passing on with a mere nod of respect.”
“If you would truly do me a favor,” he said, keeping pace with her, although at a respectful distance, “you would grant me a dance. My friends are trying to marry me off and I need a shield.”
The smile faded from her eyes. “I think you are trying to be kind to me.”
“For purely selfish reasons. I would very much like to waltz with you.”
She laughed, and set her untouched glass down upon the tray of a passing waiter. “Do you know who I am, Mr. Grant?”
“I know your name.”
“Then by all means, let us see whether I ruin you or you save me in the eyes of your congregation. If you’re bold enough.”
Smiling, he bowed and took her hand, leading her onto the dance floor. Unexpectedly, he felt the faintest tremor of her fingers in his. He wasn’t coxcomb enough to imagine his nearness affected her. But it was enough to arouse all his protective instincts, because the lady was not as invulnerable as she pretended. The slighting of the townspeople bothered her, might even hurt her. And when he placed his hand at her waist, she felt frail and brittle.
But she followed his lead quite naturally and with flawless grace.
“I don’t remember you,” she said abruptly. “I didn’t know Mr. Hoag had a curate.”
“He didn’t until a couple of months ago, when it was felt his congregation had grown too large for one vicar to administer on his own.”
“Well, I imagine you waltz better than Mr. Hoag,” she allowed.
“I don’t believe Mr. Hoag does waltz.”
“But he doesn’t forbid it in his presence as I recall.”
“He is not so foolish as to imagine impropriety where there is none.”
“And has learning to waltz been part of your training?” she inquired.
“And yet you are quite accomplished, Mr. Grant. How come?”
“I learned abroad,” he confessed.
“In war time,” she said, thoughtfully.
“I learned many things abroad. What brings you to Blackhaven, Lady Crowmore?”
Annoyingly, the music was ending. She smiled. “Why, no one would dance with me in London. Thank you, Mr. Grant.” She slid her gloved hand free of his and curtseyed with a hint of irony. “I hope your friends find you a kind and dutiful wife, one who waltzes and makes you laugh. Goodbye.”
And she slipped through the throng of departing dancers. He wanted to stand still and just watch her graceful, retreating back, see where she went next and to whom she spoke. But he knew what was due to her, and to his own calling. So, he turned instead toward the Lamptons, and walked back to ask Mary to dance.
Lady Crowmore, known to her friends as Kate—in the days when she’d had friends—continued her promenade around the ballroom. Walking away from the handsome curate felt a little like turning her back on her savior.
But then she’d been foolish to come here, to imagine no one would have heard of her disgrace, or if they had, that they would behave any differently from London society. A fatal mixture of boredom and defiance had driven her alone from her hotel rooms to seek diversion among people whom she vaguely remembered as unpretentious and kind.
As soon as she’d stepped into the room, she’d recognized her mistake. The familiar hush and contemptuous stares had greeted her, followed by the shocked tittering of women behind their fans, and the salacious grins of men as they wished, secretly or otherwise, to have been in the shoes—or at least the bed—of Lord Vernon, her lover.
For Kate had finally committed the ultimate sin of her society. She’d been caught. Which was ironic in itself. And to top it all, she refused to wear widow’s weeds, or sit quietly at home pretending a grief the world knew she didn’t feel. Well, few men were less deserving of grief than the late Lord Crowmore. One had only to ask his servants, his tenants, or his wife. Only, of course, no one ever did. Or would, now that he was dead. Death apparently conferred some kind of bizarre sanctity.
The chairs around the ballroom were all taken, even if only with shawls or reticules hastily placed there as she approached. Kate pretended not to notice, let alone care. And in truth, it was easier now since her encounter with the curate. Pride had prevented her simply leaving again as soon as she’d stepped in the door. But now she’d walked, drunk champagne, and danced. When she’d strolled just a little more, she could leave and go back to her safe if unutterably dull hotel.
At last, she spied a solitary chair, pushed aside by a group of young men. She sat in it and summoned a waiter with a flick of her eyebrow. A glass of champagne in one hand and a lethargically waving fan in the other, made her more comfortable.
Mr. Grant, she saw, was dancing now with a lady of about her own age. Although this woman had little of what the world saw as style, she was pretty and she laughed up at the curate with a natural friendliness, an intimacy that Kate found she envied.
Well, he was a good-looking man in any profession. Tall and straight with hair the color of ripe chestnuts, he possessed a pair of compelling eyes, almost green in hue, that were both steady and ready to laugh. His face, like the rest of him, was just a little too lean, giving him a faintly ascetic appearance. And yet those eyes were not remotely unworldly. Neither was his conversation.
She wondered if Mr. Grant realized just how grateful she was for his attention. More than that, he’d captured her interest. He’d intrigued her. He’d taken the awfulness away, just for a few minutes. He’d been fun.
But, of course, clergyman were not her type. Whether he’d acted from pity or interests of his own in dancing with her, her innate sense of fair play had forced her to release him. And he didn’t glance once in her direction now.
“Good evening,” said two male voices, almost in perfect time. She glanced up to see two young bucks of rakish appearance drawing up chairs to join her in her solitary corner.
She nodded distantly, and would have ignored them, had they not hemmed her in, one on each side like a maneuvering army.
She lifted one eyebrow. “Do I know you, gentlemen?”
“Not yet,” one replied with what he probably imagined was a winning smile.
“Then be so good as to move aside. You’re blocking my view of the dance floor.”
One of them shifted slightly, but the other persevered. “Would your ladyship care to take a turn on the dance floor? Or perhaps a walk?”
She met his gaze, keeping her own hooded and amused. Normally, this was enough to depress the attentions of the young and mildly inebriated who were ridiculous enough to imagine they stood a chance with wicked Kate Crowmore.
But everything had changed now. It seemed she was meant to be grateful for such attentions. The bolder gentleman actually reached out and took her gloved hand.
Still she held his gaze. “Unhand me this instant, sir,” she said mildly. “Or in the next, you will have my wine dripping off your chin onto that rather ill-tied cravat.”
Shock froze him, until she began to raise her glass, when he stumbled hastily out of his chair and effaced himself, his friend at his heels.
Kate sipped her champagne and wondered when she could leave.
Like the awful soiree in London, where everyone had cut her dead, this had been a mistake.
She wondered what all those haughty people would feel if they knew the truth, that none of the scandal associated with her name was true. That she’d never taken even one lover, not even on the night that Crowmore had died when they’d discovered her at Lord Vernon’s house.
Trust Crowmore to get the last laugh. Even in death he’d managed to hurt her. For in her heart she knew the truth would make no difference to the self-righteous who shunned her. They didn’t care whether she’d actually had fifty lovers or none. The sin was in the appearance, in being caught.
Grant didn’t approach Lady Crowmore again. Nor did he glower at her from across the room in the manner of the notorious Lord Byron. But he did notice her occasionally, mostly sitting alone, once exchanging pleasantries with young Bernard Muir while the wealthy Miss Smallwood glared at him jealously from close-by. And once reducing two over-amorous young bucks to stammering incoherence while she drank her champagne and ignored them.
While Mary was occupied in other conversations, Grant drew his chair nearer Lampton’s. “Spill,” he invited. “What is the scandalous story of the widowed lady?”
Lampton shrugged. “That when they looked for her to tell her about her husband’s not unexpected death, they found her in the bed of her lover, Lord Vernon.”
Grant, who’d just taken a sip of wine, almost choked.
Lampton threw up one apologetic hand, clearly and fortunately misunderstanding. “That is the gossip. Truth is another matter. The lady is clearly avoiding something, though. Why else would she come to Blackhaven alone?” He cast a quick glance at Grant. “Smitten, my friend?”
“Utterly enchanted,” Grant said at once.
He did what was expected of him: danced with several young women, chatted with their families and other acquaintances, and when, finally, he realized that Lady Crowmore was no longer in the ballroom, he said good night to the Lamptons and walked out into the foyer. Where, by chance, he saw Lady Crowmore emerging from the ladies’ cloakroom.
The foyer, at that time of the evening, when it was too late for new arrivals and not yet time for most to depart, was empty. Still, she pretended not to see him, walking briskly toward the front exit. But Grant had long legs and caught her up in plenty of time to open the door for her.
“You’re leaving so early?” she marveled. “Before the entertainment gets out of hand and orgiastic, I suppose. Probably best for a man of your calling.”
“Are you making fun of our simple pleasures, my lady?” he asked as she glided past him into the street. “Or just of me?”
“Alas, you will never know.” She turned and inclined her head. “Good night, Mr. Grant.”
“You have no escort,” he observed. “Please, allow me—”
“That won’t be necessary,” she interrupted. “Thank you.” She nodded to the doorman, whose purpose Grant had usurped, and turned left in the direction of the hotel. The vicarage was to the right.
Grant knew an unexpectedly sharp twinge of disappointment. Chivalry was only his excuse. He simply wanted more of her unusual company. But she’d already defied convention by attending the ball alone. After that, walking to the hotel probably seemed trivial. Although it was only a hundred yards or less, and although Blackhaven was hardly a hotbed of crime, walking unaccompanied was not the done thing for a lady of her class. And yet, if she didn’t want him there, he couldn’t and wouldn’t inflict his company.
The lady was a notorious flirt. He just hadn’t expected her to be quite so fascinating, so different … well, that was clearly the source of her power over men. And Tristram Grant, curate, was no different from others of his sex.
So he merely stood by the Assembly Room doors, aiming to make idle conversation with George the doorman until she vanished into the safety of the hotel. George, however, was called inside by Mr. Hawthorn, the manager, and so Grant simply loitered.
Which was why, without distraction, he saw the shadows detach themselves from the dark corners of the deserted street, both behind her and in front of her. From instinct, he set off briskly down the street in her wake, hoping his presence would scare off whatever villainy was intended before it happened. There were four shadows in all, clearly men, all closing in on her. Grant began to run.
She halted. “Who sent you?” she asked clearly.
A blade gleamed in the light of the gas lamp. Terrified for her now, Grant leapt at the nearest assailant, seizing him around the throat and hurling him into his fellow. The startled distraction of the other two gave him the moment he needed to run at them, crashing his fist into the face of the man with the blade, before spinning and kicking out at the fourth.
“Run!” he commanded Lady Crowmore, and whirled around to face the first two attackers, who’d untangled themselves and risen to rejoin the fray.
Lady Crowmore, however, did not run. And then the men were standing stock-still, because the lady pointed a very neat little pistol at them.