Captive of My Desires Page 17

Changing Drew’s firm commitment to bachelorhood had been the plan, but it wasn’t looking very promising. He’d formed some wrong impressions about her somehow, and in the coach, coming and going, she’d never been alone with him to discuss his false assumptions.

But she was tired of hiding, and tired of bemoaning the fact that the one man she was seriously attracted to was the one man she couldn’t have. So be it. She’d come to London to find a husband and that was exactly what she was going to do, and Drew Anderson could go to Hades for all she cared!

Drew didn’t join her and Georgina for the ball tonight. Boyd was their escort, but Boyd had lost all interest in her apparently. Because he’d witnessed her kissing his brother? It didn’t matter. He hadn’t been on her list anyway.

She was glad now that shehad decided at the last minute to attend the ball. With Drew off her list, she had this opportunity to learn more about the Honorable Wilbur Carlisle. So she ought to actuallylisten to him, she supposed.

He hadn’t waited for her to approve his frankness; he was telling her, “I wanted to assure you of my intentions. I don’t want you to think that like some of these other chaps, I’m here in London merely to enjoy the Season. On the contrary, and I hope you can keep this just between us, I have been sent here for three years now, to find a bride.”

“I suppose I can assume you’ve had no luck so far?” she queried politely.

“Indeed, none. Not that I haven’t applied myself earnestly. But for one reason or another, well, I’m either always too late, or I’m not interested enough to appear convincing.” Three years? she thought. How depressing. Or maybe he didn’t really want to get married.

She decided to be just as frank as Wilbur. “Do you really want a bride, Wilbur?” He sighed. “I do, actually. But the pressure has been tremendous and is even worse now. You see, my father has informed me that if I don’t bring home a bridethis year, I needn’t return home a’tall.”

“Good heavens, really?”

“He’s not in the best of health,” he explained. “He wants to see me settled before, well, Ido understand

his position. I’m his only son, after all.”

She began to feel uncomfortable with the direction Wilbur’s frankness was taking.She wasn’t ready to make a decision yet, even if the Season was almost over. If he proposed before she was ready, she had no idea what her answer would be.

“Wilbur, why are you telling me all this?”

“I just want you to keep me in mind, m’dear, and to assure you that my intentions are very honorable. I confess I was in such despair before you arrived. Nearly the end of the Season and my only prospects were, well, not to my liking. Then you appeared, like a breath of fresh air. Dare I say I was quite smitten?”

It was about time in his dissertation that he got romantic. No, wait, why was she nitpicking? He was a very eligible bachelor and the only one she hadn’t discounted out of hand. The others she’d met were either too proper, too snobbish, or too much the dandy for her tastes. And Wilbur seemed to be a nice man, too.

He was also quite witty when he wasn’t worrying over making confessions like tonight, or who her sponsor was. Before Malory’s name had been mentioned when they first met, he’d been relaxed and very charming,and more romantic. She should be delighted that he was still available, for whatever reason, and simply consider herself lucky that he was. He was a fine catch, after all, and very handsome even if he was rather pale. Well, actually, his skin was so white it seemed odd to her.

She sighed to herself. It wasn’t the first time she’d thought that since she’d come to London. With everything else she found wrong with the men she’d met, too many of them were pallid in complexion, as well, and at the tail end of summer! But it wasn’t their fault that they looked odd to her, and as Margery had pointed out, a little sun could correct that easily enough. She was simply too used to men whose complexions were deeply tanned because they spent a lot of time outdoors. Yet not everyone enjoyed the outdoors as much as she did. Not everyone could be as perfectly tanned as a sea captain either…

Her eyes were drawn to Drew the moment he entered the room.Goodness, even after taking him off her list, where she never should have put him to begin with, she could still be mesmerized by the sight of him.

And her stomach was already starting to flutter. What the deuce was it about him that caused that? Did she really want to give up on him just because of assumptions he’d made? When a little talk between them would clear the air and prove he was wrong about her?

How could she even hold the conclusions he’d drawn against him? Her fatherwas a pirate. And her association with pirates had educated her about matters a young lady of good breeding would never know of until after she was married. So the only thing Drew was actually wrong about was the state of her virginity. A logical mistake.

Oh,dear, shewas talking herself into putting him back on her list. Dare she? She’d rather not be disappointed by him again. That had hurt. But what if he didn’t hurt her feelings again? What if he apologized and admitted how foolish he’d been to assume the worst about her?

The dance ended and Wilbur was leading her back to Georgina. “It seems I’m never allowed enough time with you,” he said with a charming twinkle in his eye. “I hope you’ll join me for a walk in the garden later, so we can continue our conversation?”

Distracted now with her eyes on Drew, Gabrielle merely nodded. Having spotted his sister in the crowd,

Drew was heading toward her, too. Gabrielle didn’t think he had seen her yet, but then their eyes met, and he collided with a few people who were in his path.

She frowned upon seeing that. Clumsy? A sea captain? Maybe he was clumsy when he first stepped off his ship after a long voyage, but seamen usually had a keen sense of balance. They had to, because they constantly had to maneuver on ever-pitching decks.

As she approached Georgina, she noticed that her benefactress was speaking with Lady Dunstan, their hostess, who as Georgina had reminded her before their arrival, was one of the ton’s worst gossips. That lady’s presence managed to distract her from thinking about Drew. She had to pay close attention to every word out of her mouth now to make sure she didn’t say anything inappropriate. According to Georgina, a woman like Lady Dunstan could make or break a debutante without even trying.

“Ah, here she is,” Lady Dunstan said with a smile for Gabrielle and then a quick frown at her escort.

“Andyou, dear boy, really must stop monopolizing Miss Brooks—or do you have news of an impending marriage that will finally please your father?”

Gabrielle winced for the fellow. So his frank confession wasn’t such a secret after all. Apparently it was common knowledge. Regardless, their hostess was definitely putting him on the spot. Gabrielle had never heard such blatant fishing. No matter what Wilbur answered, he’d be giving the lady a juicy tidbit of gossip to chew on.

But a new voice intruded, slightly slurred, definitely snide. “I wouldn’t count on it, lady, unless his father doesn’t mind pirates in the family.”

Lady Dunstan gasped, hearing that. Wilbur paled. Georgina was rendered speechless for a moment.

Having scolded her brother more than once for using that word in public in reference to Gabrielle, she was staring at him incredulously because he’d just done it again.

Gabrielle was simply furious and the glare she turned on Drew wouldn’t let him doubt it. He was drunk, and even drunk he was so damned handsome. But what shocked her more than what he’d just said was the bright spark of desire in his midnight-dark eyes as he looked directly at her.

Chapter 19

GABRIELLE HURRIED DOWNSTAIRSafter being told the name of the visitor waiting for her in the parlor. She wouldn’t have come downstairs for anyone else. She was still somewhat in shock after last night. She couldn’t believe Drew had done that to her, deliberately tried to ruin her chances for a good marriage.

He didn’t succeed, fortunately. He even insisted he wasn’t serious when Georgina, just as shocked as Gabrielle was, started to upbraid him. Of course, what else could he say at that point?

Gabrielle didn’t buy his innocence, though. She didn’t doubt at all that the remark was a deliberate attempt to sabotage her husband hunting. But hewas foxed to the gills. That his inebriated state was so obvious was probably the only reason Lady Dunstan believed that he’d only been joking and had merely suggested that he leave, which he did.

Wilbur had left, too. He’d taken quick advantage of the distraction to slip away so he wouldn’t have to answer Lady Dunstan’s probing question. Or so Gabrielle had assumed later. She’d wanted to leave at

that point, too.

“Don’t let this upset you,” Georgina had said, patting her hand. “My brother can be quite careless in his comments when he gets foxed, and he usually does get foxed his last few nights in port. But Lady Dunstan knows who my husband is. For that matter, she won’t risk having any of the Malorys annoyed with her by repeating what she thinks was no more than tasteless joking. She knows very well that by the time the comment made the rounds, it would no longer be considered a jest. So she’ll say nothing.” Gabrielle didn’t hear anything beyond “last few nights in port.” Drew was leaving. And she wouldn’t even have known if his sister hadn’t mentioned it. She was sure he wouldn’t have told her. Why should he? She was nothing to him.

And yet she was crushed. First he tried to ruin her prospects, then he intended to leave before the scandal broke. She should be furious with him. She wished shewas furious. That would be so much more preferable to feeling hurt and disappointed.

“There you are, m’dear.”

Gabrielle turned to see James Malory leaving his study. She didn’t tense up like she used to in his presence. Since the night of the theater when he’d bandied quips back and forth with Georgina’s brothers and she’d seen how they could provoke him without dire consequences, she’d lost most of her fear of him. And his expression wasn’t guarded for once. He actually looked concerned.

“How are you feeling this morning?” James asked, putting a fatherly arm about her shoulders.

She thought he was referring to the couple days she’d hidden in her room claiming illness, so she said,

“I’m fine now.”

“No urge to shoot anyone?”

She chuckled at the way he put it, understanding now. “You heard about what happened last night, I take it?”

“Indeed. No more thanI would expect from one of those barbarians I’m forced to claim kinship with, but George is quite annoyed. She actually expects her brothers to behave like gentlemen. But I’ll make sure there are no repercussions due to Drew’s foolishness, you may depend upon it. I’m going to bite the bullet, as it were, and join you and George for the rest of the Season.” She was surprised, and touched, that he’d be willing to do that. She knew how much he hated social gatherings. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to. Consider this, if you will. If not for your father, I wouldn’t be here, my children wouldn’t be here, and George wouldn’t be the happiest woman alive.” He said it with such a warm grin, she couldn’t help but return it. It made her realize the debt he owed her father was more important to him than she’d guessed.

“Well, when you put it that way…”

“Exactly. Now run along. I believe I heard one of your suitors arrive for a visit.”

She would have explained that her visitor wasn’t a suitor, but James had already turned to go upstairs, and she’d kept the young man waiting long enough. James had managed to cheer her up, but her visitor was going to take her mind off last night completely, she was sure.

“Avery! How nice to see you again!”

She held out her hand as she approached him. He didn’t see it because he couldn’t take his eyes off her face. “Good God, I barely recognize you, Miss Brooks. I knew you had promise, but you’ve far exceeded it.”

She blushed at the compliment; actually, it was his expression that embarrassed her. He really did appear incredulous—and delighted.

“You’re looking well yourself, Avery. But how did you know to find me here?” He was blushing now, severely. “I’m afraid I bring you bad news.” She immediately thought of her father, and yet this couldn’t be about him. She’d made a point of finding out what had happened to Avery after she’d left that pirate isle. Her father had assured her that he’d been ransomed and had returned to England shortly thereafter to find a less “exciting” occupation. So Avery couldn’t know anything about Nathan. And he hadn’t actually answered her question. How did he find her or even know she was in London, when they didn’t travel in the same circles?

He could have just seen her about town, she supposed. She’d ridden in the park twice, attended a day concert, even gone shopping on Bond Street several times with Margery. She’d also gone to the less affluent side of town last week when she’d wanted to warn Richard of Malory’s lethal promise. So Avery could have just noticed her out and about and merely followed her to this location.

“What is the bad news?”

“Your name is on everyone’s tongue this morning. That’s how I found out that you were in town and why, and even who you’re staying with. Half of the town is apparently aghast that a pirate would try to infiltrate their ranks through marriage, while the other half finds it hilarious, seeing it as quite the joke on the ton. Oh, dear, so you didn’t know?”

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