Forever Betrothed Never the Bride

 Book 1 in the >Scandalous Seasons Series

Hopeless romantic, Lady Emmaline Fitzhugh, is tired of sitting with the wallflowers, waiting for her betrothed to come to his senses and marry her. When Emmaline reads one too many reports of his scandalous liaisons in the gossip rags, she takes matters into her own hands.War-torn veteran, Lord Drake devotes himself to forgetting his days on the Peninsula through an endless round of meaningless associations. He no longer wants to feel anything, but Lady Emmaline is making it hard to maintain a state of numbness. With her zest for life, she awakens his passion and desire for love.The one woman Drake has spent the better part of his life avoiding is now the only woman he needs, but he is no longer a man worthy of his Emmaline. It is up to her to show him the healing power of love.

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Chapter 1

London, England

Dearest Lord Drake,

Though you have never directly addressed me by name, I have decided I am far too old to be called Em. I ask you to instead call me Emmaline…that is, if you ever call upon me.

Ever Yours,

Two elegant phaetons barreled along Oxford Street, bearing down on an old woman peddling her goods. The merchant paled and tried to shove her cart up on the pavement. It tipped, swayed, and then careened into the street. Both men in their high flyers pulled sharp on the reins. Nearby, a passing gentleman pushed the lady on his arm away from certain calamity.

A vulgar shout and frightened screams split the cacophony of mundane street sounds.

Lady Emmaline Rose Fitzhugh paused on the pavement and raised a hand to shield her eyes against the sun’s brightness. She frowned.

Lord Whitmore and Lord Cavenleigh. Two of Society’s most dandified fops.

Lord Whitmore tugged hard at the reigns and leapt from the still moving conveyance. “You filthy cow!” He raged at the poor woman in the street.

Lord Cavenleigh, jumped down from his carriage and muttered a string of curses.

Emmaline’s skin heated at the rather descriptive obscenities they unleashed on the woman. Having an older brother, she’d heard her fair share of inappropriate words, but Cavenleigh’s litany was rather original even on that score.

As the street erupted with the panicked cries of young ladies, the peddler bowed her head. Stringy gray hair straggled into her eyes. “Oi’m sorry, m-my lord.”

Cavenleigh kicked a tomato at the old woman, and splattered her skirts with the ripened fruit.

Emmaline gasped.

Her maid, Grace, took her by the arm and attempted to steer her away. “Please, come away, my lady.”

Emmaline ignored her efforts and rushed into the fray. “Cease, immediately.” She stepped into the street just as the assailant launched another tomato at the peddler.

The projectile missed its intended mark and splattered onto the embroidered lace edging of Emmaline’s ivory silk skirts.

Hands squared on her hips, she glared at the two men. “How dare you?”

Whitmore, with his slickly oiled and very deliberately curled red hair, stepped around Emmaline to launch a barrage of insults at the quaking woman. He brandished his riding crop. “Sorry? You’re sorry? We could have been killed and for what? Your meaningless life and rotten vegetables?”

Emmaline threw herself in front of the aged peddler. “What manner of gentlemen would torment a defenseless woman?”

“No, my lady,” Grace cried.

A tall figure stepped into the fray and positioned himself between Grace and the two assailants. Society knew the gentleman as the Marquess of Drake.

Emmaline knew him as her betrothed.

Lord Drake wrenched the whip from the cad’s fingers, cracked the instrument in half, and tossed the two pieces aside.

Emmaline swallowed hard. Lord Drake stood more than a head taller than her and possessed the kind of hardened masculine perfection Michelangelo would have ached to memorialize in stone. The harsh angles of his face bespoke power and commanded notice. With rugged cheeks, aquiline nose, and squared jaw, he conveyed raw vitality. The hint of a curl to his unfashionably long golden hair seemed suited to this real life David.

“You clearly have very little value for your life,” Drake said to the two fops who’d moments ago tormented the poor old woman.

Emmaline’s stare collided with Drake’s emerald eyes. The green irises pierced through her with heated intensity; robbed her of breath.

Get a hold of yourself, Em. He is just a man. A gloriously, stunning man—but that was neither here nor there.

She looked toward Whitmore and Cavenleigh. Cavenleigh had the good sense to stagger backwards and scurry from the incident like a rodent discovered by Cook in the kitchens.

Lord Drake returned his focus to the red-haired assailant who’d wielded the weapon. He grabbed him by the wrist and applied such pressure, the man gasped.

A hiss of pain whistled past Whitmore’s lips. “For the love of God, man…” Whitmore pleaded.

“Had your whip hit its mark, you’d be facing me at dawn.” Drake’s voice was a silken promise. “What’s your name, pup?”

Whitmore swallowed, as though he’d been forced to scrape up a rotten tomato from the grimy pavement and swallow it whole. “L-Lord W-Whitmore.”

“Beg the lady’s pardon, Witless.”

A laugh escaped Emmaline.

Whitmore glared at her.

His actions did not escape Drake’s astute gaze. Lord Drake tightened his grip and the dandy whimpered like a naughty child who’d just had a birch rod put to his person by a too stern nursemaid. “Apologize.”

The young lord turned to Emmaline. “I-I’m sorry, my lady. M-my apologies,” he croaked.

She folded her arms across her chest and nodded pointedly at the old woman. “I say, you rather owe the both of us an apology.”

Whitmore’s eyes rounded with shocked indignation. “You’re mad.”

Lord Drake squeezed again.

“M-My apologies, my lady.”

Her betrothed jerked his chin in the peddler’s direction. “Now, the woman.”

Whitmore blinked; his pale white cheeks flamed a crimson red to match the bright hue of his hair. “Stupid old cow and her rotten vegetables nearly killed us.” He motioned down the expanse of his peacock blue satin breeches. “And look at this stain. Why, Brummell himself would have been proud to wear these.” The young man’s whining tone indicated he considered the attack on his wardrobe to be an equally grave affront.

The peddler’s chin fell to her chest as if she tried to make herself as small as possible.

Unable to remain silent any longer, Emmaline took a step toward the young fop. “Stupid, Lord Whitmore?” Passing a cursory glance over his frame, Emmaline shook her head. She nudged a tomato with the tip of her already ruined ivory satin slipper. “First of all, a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. Secondly,” it was her turn to gesture at the garment in question. “those breeches were ruined long before this incident.”

Whitmore frowned. “I don’t understand, my lady.”

Lord Drake’s chuckle tugged her attention momentarily in his direction. His lips quirked upward in a devastating smile that quickened her heart’s pace. “I believe that is the lady’s point, Whitmore,” Lord Drake drawled.

Whitmore’s gasp forced Emmaline’s attention away from her betrothed.

Enraged awareness dawned in the dandy’s eyes. “You witch.”

Emmaline took a step closer to Lord Drake.

A single black look from the marquess forced Whitmore to an ignoble halt. Drake leaned down close to the man and whispered something intended solely for the dandy’s ears.

All color leached from the brute’s cheeks. His head tipped up and down like a bobbing ship caught in a squall on the Channel. “M-my a-a-apologies, my lady.”

Drake dropped Whitmore’s wrist and wiped his hands back and forth as though he’d been sullied by the other man’s skin. His lethal glare froze the coward in his spot.

Whitmore cleared his throat. “What I’d intended to say, my lady, is that your rich beauty robbed me of any sense.” He looked to Lord Drake as he recited each word, indicating they were by no means original thoughts belonging to the jackanapes.

“One more thing,” Drake said.

With obvious reluctance, the humiliated dandy reached into the front of his elaborate, violet-hued floral jacket. He withdrew a bag of coins, stared at it forlornly, and then offered it to the peddler. “Here.”

The peddler’s eyes widened.

“Take it,” Drake said. There was an underlying warmth to his gruff tone.

With downcast eyes, the woman reached out and accepted the bag.

Drake returned his steely gaze to Whitmore. “I suggest you leave.”

When the other man continued to eye the bag in the woman’s hands with a blend of longing and bitter rage, Drake added, “Now.”

Whitmore reached down, scooped up the remnants of his short whip, and then clambered into his phaeton. He shot one last black look at the peddler and Emmaline, before striking his white mount with a piece of his crop. His phaeton resumed its reckless path down the street. Emmaline stared after the carriage, glad to be free of Whitmore’s loathsome company.

When Whitmore had gone, she turned back to the peddler. “Are you hurt?”

“No, my lady,” the woman whispered. Fat teardrops filled her eyes and spilled over onto her cheeks. She sniffed and dashed a hand across her nose. “My lady, my lord, oi thank you.”

Drake stepped out into the street. The heels of his gleaming black Hessian boots sank into a pile of rotten produce as he effortlessly righted the upended cart. Then, reaching into his jacket front, he pulled out a bag of coins, and returned to the old woman’s side. “Here.” He gently placed the bag in her dirt-encrusted fingers.

“Oi-Oi, thank you, my lord. Many blessings to you both.” She dipped an awkward curtsy and pushed her nearly emptied cart down the road.

Emmaline watched after her until she’d disappeared from sight.

With the excitement now over, Oxford Street and its passersby returned to their daily humdrum. Lord Drake turned his focus to Emmaline. “Have you been hurt, Lady Emmaline?”

She blinked. Then sighed. Maybe not in that order. Her mind seemed a bit…muddled. Yes, it was muddled. And her heart beat an oddly rapid rhythm in her chest—thumpthumpthumpthump. She tried to catch her breath but failed miserably.

And then realized what had happened. “Oh dear,” she said.

The earlier rage she’d seen in Lord Drake’s jade eyes faded to warm concern. He took a step towards her and Emmaline backed up a step. “My lady?”

“Oh dear,” she muttered beneath her breath. She’d read a fair number of poems and gothic novels to recognize certain telltale signs of that which ailed her. The books all indicated one’s heart would race; one would be at a loss for words, and one would forget to breath. Yes, Emmaline knew what the onslaught of symptoms she’d been besieged by indicated—she’d gone and fallen in love.

“My lady?” Lord Drake and her maid repeated in unison.

Emmaline crashed back down to reality. The first thing she became aware of was that her toes were exceedingly chilly. She glanced down into the muddy puddle her slippers now called home and wrinkled her nose. A rather odd-smelling puddle of filthy water, crushed tomatoes, cabbage, and Lord knew what else.

With the tip of her right foot, she pushed aside the stray purple leaf clinging to her other slipper.

“My lady?” Lord Drake interrupted her musings.

Her head snapped up. What did he say? Her mind tried to drag up his recent question so she might form a suitable reply.

“Just splendid.” There, that seemed like a perfectly, splendid response.

A smile pulled at the corners of his lips. “Uh, well you may find the stench of that puddle splendid but I must insist it is foul. Regardless of who is correct, might I offer you my arm?”

Emmaline wished said puddle were about five-feet-one inch deeper so she could sink beneath its surface.

She stared at his outstretched hand until her maid cleared her throat, and jerked her back to the moment. Emmaline placed her fingers in his. He tucked them into the fold of his elbow and carefully guided her away from the remnants of the cart.

“Thank you, my lord.”

That was the best I could come up with—just thank you? She grimaced and stole a peek from the corner of her eye to gauge his reaction to her less than stimulating repartee. Couldn’t she have offered some witty banter, as so many other ladies would have managed?

His expression may as well have been carved from granite.

Emmaline had never been a flirt, so she settled for honesty. “What you did for that peddler…and me, was—heroic.”

If she hadn’t raised her gaze at that precise moment, she would have missed the way his strong, square jaw tightened.

“I would hardly call it heroic, my lady.” His words sounded curiously flat.

Emmaline dug her heels in, and forced him to stop. She motioned to the sea of preoccupied lords and ladies. “Look around, my lord. Look how busy the street is. There are ladies and gentlemen rushing about, and not one of them stepped forward.”

He gently steered her ahead. “That isn’t quite true.”

Emmaline looked at him askance.

“You placed yourself between the peddler and the dandies,” he said.

She beamed.

“What would possess you to do something so reckless?”

An errant lock of hair escaped her chignon and fell across her eye. She blew it back, but it fell right back into place. Forgetting the recalcitrant strand, she again dug her heels in and forced him to a stop.

Emmaline looked up at Lord Drake. “What would you have had me do? Allow them to beat the poor woman?”

A growl lodged in his throat. “I would rather you hadn’t placed yourself in harm’s way.”

If he hadn’t sounded so surly about it, Emmaline would have sighed like a debutante at her first ball. Instead, “I couldn’t just let them hurt her. What kind of person would I be if I’d allowed that?”

The corner of his lips lifted ever so slightly. He motioned for Emmaline to continue walking. “A safe one.”

“Ahh, but what is safety without honor?”

He looked at a point over her shoulder. “Honor is an oftentimes overestimated word with little meaning, my lady.”

A frisson of distress traveled along Emmaline’s spine, and in spite of the unseasonable warmth of the day, gooseflesh dotted her arms. She hadn’t failed to miss the bleakness in Lord Drake’s distracted stare, and found herself, yet again, at a loss.

“Might I see you home, Lady Emmaline?”

A cowardly sense of relief that she’d been saved from replying to his previous, baleful statement assailed her. Lord Drake wanted to escort her home? Had he asked, she would have taken tea in the muddy puddle he’d rescued her from. Still, it wouldn’t do to come across as too eager. “I would be grateful, my lord.”

They walked along in silence and Emmaline mourned the passing of each block that brought her closer to home.

She caught her lower lip between her teeth and searched her mind for something to discuss. The weather…? What clever young lady would discuss something as mundane as the weather?

“Your earlier actions were brave, Lady Emmaline—and I respect them.”

She blinked. “Well, I really hadn’t been expecting that from you, my lord.”

He continued as though she hadn’t spoken. “But still foolish.”

“Now, that I expected.”

A deep laugh rumbled up from his chest. “I’ve been boorish today. Forgive me.”

“Yes, yes, I say you have,” she said, under her breath.

He raised a single brow. “I beg your pardon?”

Emmaline nodded. “Very well, since you are begging.” His brow furrowed. “I’m teasing, my lord,” she said. She shook her head. “You’ve been nothing but honorable, brave, and heroic—a true gentleman.” The effusive praise spilled from her lips with all sincerity and she willed herself to silence. Alas, she’d never been one to dissemble.

“We’ve arrived,” he said.

Emmaline shook her head, but Lord Drake gave a slight nod.

She looked up at the white finish of her brother’s townhouse and groaned.

Lord Drake’s gaze snapped to her. “Are you certain you were not injured earlier? Did you turn your ankle?”

He had a look as if he were about to draw her skirts back and peek for himself, which sent her heart sputtering wildly.

If she’d been brazen or clever, she would have feigned an injury blocks ago. But alas… “No, no. I assure you, I’m fine.”

Her brother’s aging butler pulled open the front door. Emmaline jumped, and pressed a hand to her breast. Goodness, the man could shock a ghost.

Lord Drake took a step away from her and offered a deep bow. “I am glad you were uninjured. I bid you good day, my lady.”

Without awaiting a response, he turned on his heel and continued down the street. Emmaline stared after him until his figure faded from sight, and then entered the townhouse.

She’d been betrothed to Lord Drake for fifteen years. In that time, their contact had been limited to passing greetings and letters she’d written to him—letters which she’d never bothered sending. This, could therefore, be considered the first real interaction she’d had with him…and in a heroic fashion, he’d come to her aid. Perhaps he’d been so captivated by her act of bravery, as he’d called it, that he, too, had fallen madly in love with her. Even now, he might very well be strolling down the streets, unable to formulate a coherent thought, unable to think about anything other than the sight of her.

Emmaline sniffed. “What is that smell?” She looked down and her nose scrunched at the stench clinging to her skirts. Why, he surely failed to even note the rotten fruit smattered all over her beautiful ivory gown.

Yes, she was certain Lord Drake would begin courting her.

Any day.

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