"I like...[American women] because they are original and bring a little fresh air into Society. They are livelier, better educated and less hampered by etiquette...they are not as squeamish as their English sisters and...better able to take care of themselves."
-- Edward, "Bertie," Prince of Wales
I'll abduct her.
If she won't help me, I'll force her.
Bryce Falconer smiled sardonically. But the injustice of kidnapping this innocent woman made him curse.
He flipped up the collar of his greatcoat against the winter storm that had dogged him south from his home for the past three hours. He could have arrived in London before this damned dinner party started if it hadn't been for the sleet.
Yet, now that he had arrived at Forsythe House, he became frozen in place. An ice man, standing in a barren garden, staring at the only person in the world who could help him.
And what was Augusta VanderHorn doing as his world was battered by a crime as ugly as the storm around him?
Bryce rubbed a gloved finger beneath his eyepatch and studied her.
Gussie was doing what she usually did. Chuckling. Tonight she did it with her friends -- and his -- Ann and Rhys Kendall and Raine and Gavin Sutherland. Gussie was bubbling over some matter. Typical of her to do that, to carry on in her own inimitable way, creating a life -- and an identity distinct and apart from her sister, Colleen. Dodging the demands of her mama to marry as nobly and quickly as her notorious sibling. Living down the scandals Colleen created and tarred her with. Joking often. As she was now, and in the bargain, charming the starch out of one more English man.
The trilling sound of her voice permeated the panes of glass in the garden doors. The delicacy of it rushed through Bryce, warming him like brandy. Boiling his blood.
Damn Colleen! She destroyed his enjoyment of everyone. With this new outrage, she could ruin the best friendship he'd ever enjoyed with a woman. Despite the fact that the very female was his former sister-in-law.
Bryce marched toward the kitchen entrance. He hoped to God none of the servants was using the back stairs. He'd scare the hell out of them, breaking in like a thief.
He'd do it anyway. He did not want to go in the front doors and confront the Kendalls and the Sutherlands with their questions. He needed to talk to Gussie only. Alone.
He pushed in the door and stood a moment inside the threshold. Shivering as the heat of the house chafed his face, he listened for sounds. No servants were on the stairs. No music came from the drawing room. Doors slid open. Voices drifted as people bid each other good-night.
Bryce took the stairs two at a time up to the second story where the bedrooms were. He knew where Gussie's was. He had been there before when the suite had belonged to Colleen, before she and he were married...and his life became a daily nightmare.
Five years ago, he had entered this way three times. He had proposed to her, she had accepted, they'd set a date for their wedding -- and he could not wait to have his future bride. Colleen was more than cooperative; she encouraged him. She would ensure the lock was off this same door and he would enter at precisely one o'clock, stealthy as a tomcat, up the curving staircase, to her suite on the second floor. There on her chaise longue, she allowed him liberties that whet his appetite for all of her. By his third visit, he had put her to her bed and satisfied himself -- and her, too, and despite his precautions, he had planted the seed for his son and heir, Bradford. Establishing a greater need for their hasty marriage than his madness to possess Colleen. Inviting a she-devil into his heart and home only to make a mockery of love and marriage and now, even motherhood.
Tonight, Bryce had come intending to enter the front door of Forsythe House. He'd wanted to be polite, to ask to see Gussie, to be rational about this matter. Skip Brighton, who rented the house and who was Gussie's guardian in England these past five years, would let him in. Skip and Bryce had been fast friends and business partners for more than seven years.
But when Bryce's coachman had stopped before Fifteen Belgrave Square, Bryce had peered through the tall drawing room windows and had not seen Skip among the six who laughed together. Nor did Bryce find Ellen Newton, the duenna whom Skip had hired to chaperone Gussie. Bryce had seen only Gussie with the Kendalls and the Sutherlands. Bryce also noticed the other man. The one Gussie flirted with. The one whose hand lingered so long at the small of her back.
Who was he? Why did the man merit an invitation to a little dinner with Gussie's nearest and dearest friends?
Bryce let himself inside her bedroom and paused in the flickering gaslight, shrouded in a fresh misery. Was she finally interested enough in some man to ask him to a small at-home?
The picture of Augusta VanderHorn naked across some man's bed flashed into his head. It startled him.
Even more surprising, it saddened him.
Hell, what was wrong with him? He always knew the day would come when she would marry and become less available to him. Less inclined to see him on a minute's notice.
No matter. She would see him tonight.
He swept off his top hat, upending it on her cluttered reading table. He tugged off his gloves and dropped them in his hat. Removing his greatcoat and careful not to shake the sleet from it over the nearby standing camera, he spread it over the wing chair before her fire. Like her friend Ann, Gussie appreciated warmth and always requested strong fires to receive her.
But the flames that began to heat his body were doused by the chill of what he saw on her mantel.
A dozen or more photographs of Ford graced the ochre-veined marble. In gilt frames or silver, square or oval, big or small, stood the cherubic face and form of his darling boy. Some of these pictures Bryce had himself. Gussie had given duplicates to him as soon as she took one which passed her standards for excellence. But her collection included the ones which were too under- or overexposed. The ones which were blurred with the movement of a baby, a toddler, a three-year-old who could not sit still to wait upon the foibles of a camera which took too long to capture an indelible image.
Tears at Ford's loss choked him. He turned away. He could not gaze at these!
He spied an overstuffed chair in Gussie's bedroom beyond this sitting room. He would wait there. Where he could not see the photographs of his son. Where he could see the bed in which his boy was conceived -- and where he himself had lost his mind and his soul to a woman who was not worthy of any sacrifice. It was hell's own irony that he would sit here tonight, where he could gird himself to view Augusta VanderHorn, not as his friend, not as his confidante, not as his ex-sister-in-law, but as the only person who knew where that bitch Colleen had taken the one person he loved in this world.
Gus cocked a brow at Ann Kendall and Raine Sutherland. They were donning their coats to go to their respective homes with their husbands. The two men stood by the front door, discussing a topic of their own interest. "Don't keep me waiting until lunch tomorrow. Tell me now what you think of Lionel."
Ann's expression went deadpan. "Do I detect anxiety?"
Raine glanced at the hem of Gus's dinner gown. "That sound we hear of drilling in the floor? She's tappin' her foot, sugar."
"Mmm," Ann mused. "Let's leave before the floor caves in."
Gus was grinding her teeth. "If you don't tell me right now what you think of Lionel Eldridge, I will spit."
Ann feigned shock and looked at her cousin Raine. "Thank God there are no reporters here to put that in the gossip columns, Raine. Why we'd be lambasted again as those gauche American 'gels' who -- "
"Ann," Gus was insisting, "be quick about this!"
Ann glanced at Raine, her tone matching her imposing title of the Duchess of Carlton and Dundalk. "Darling, were we cold?"
Raine flattened a palm to her chest. "Why, I do declare, warm as butter over flapjacks."
"I'm going to warm your ears in a minute, if you don't tell me -- "
Ann grinned. "He's certainly qualified to become the husband of the most eligible American heiress in London this season."
"Comme ci, comme ça," Raine reflected. "He's got a strong chin, sweet chocolate eyes and -- "
"A few other assets." Raine checked Ann's gaze. "Shall we?"
"First," Ann raised her hand and one finger, "and most important to your mama -- "
Gus relaxed. This was their routine the three of them called the Tally, their analysis of all potential suitors who crossed their paths. Ann, Raine, and Gus had perfected the repertoire for Gus. Heaven knew, Gus had been approached by many an eager bachelor from the Isle of Wight to the tip of the Highlands since she'd debuted here in London two years ago. She had no illusions about her appeal. Her looks were more perky than pretty. Her dowry, more alluring than the infamy by which her sister shamed her. Augusta Roberta VanderHorn was the last of the four famed American Beauties yet to be married. Ann Brighton had married Rhys Kendall, the sixteenth Duke of Carlton and Dundalk. Raine had found the love of her life in famed novelist and member of Parliament Gavin Sutherland. Gus's sister, Colleen, had married the twelfth Earl of Aldersworth, Bryce Edward Falconer, borne his son and then was divorced by him for adultery.
Raine nodded. "Lionel has a grand title."
Ann elaborated, "The Viscount Gormsley."
"Second, he is heir to his daddy's marquessate." Raine stuck up a second finger. "Your mama likes titles and land."
"Third," Ann said, "there is the matter of his money."
"Of which," Gus declared, "there is a considerable amount."
Ann arranged her hood over her rosewood curls. "So we can assume Lionel is not pursuing you for your fortune."
Raine's sapphire eyes flashed with the perceptiveness which made her invaluable to her husband's political career. "Sugar, we can safely say after looking at Lionel tonight that he sees beyond the blinding light of the five hundred thousand greenbacks Gus's papa has set aside for her groom."
"Imagine," Ann urged, "how much the interest alone is."
"Do you think" -- Gus moved marginally closer -- "he cares for me alone?"
Ann's hazel eyes shimmered with concern. "What does your instinct say, honey?"
"I think Lionel is right for me, more so than any of the others I've liked."
"Of which" -- Raine made a circle with her thumb and forefinger -- "there have been none."
Rhys and Gavin approached and each claimed his wife.
"Are we done with the Tally?" Rhys asked as he turned his wife in his arms and secured her cape more firmly around her throat and face.
"You knew about it?" Gus was laughing.
Gavin draped an arm around Raine and hugged her to his side. "Sweetie, we've been in this family too long not to notice." That Gavin used the term family had them all grinning at each other. Gavin continued, "So? What's the analysis? Does Lionel win the day -- and the lovely damsel?"
Raine kissed her husband on his cheek. "He gets a high score. What do you and Rhys think? Shall we allow the man inside the gates?"
Rhys gazed down at his wife. "Your father likes him. Gives him a sound financial rating."
"Ah," Ann proclaimed, "my father's prime stamp of approval."
"Well," Gus concluded, "we know he'll tell Daddy. I do want to marry for all the right reasons." She wiggled her brows.
"We'll talk more tomorrow over luncheon about those," Ann promised. "Come early and we'll take the afternoon to dissect Lionel's character completely."
"And exhume any Eldridge family skeletons," Raine added.
"Yes. Before Mama arrives in May," Gus vowed, "I have got to be prepared for her. This year, she'll launch a full-scale attack to get me off the market."
When Veronica VanderHorn had arrived in London last May to open her younger daughter's second season, the woman had insisted that Gus accept a man's proposal before June was out. Gus, she declared, was becoming more than a spinster. She was becoming a subject of speculation. Therefore, she must marry soon to show that she had none of the deleterious qualities her sister Colleen exhibited.
Gus had obliged her mother by promptly receiving two proposals of marriage. She accepted neither. Her mother had sailed for New York July first in a huff, threatening to cut Gus's allowance, confiscate her shares in her father's companies, and make her return to New York. Gus's father had saved the day by refusing to follow his wife's edicts. He did, however, notify Gus that she was to affiance herself to someone this spring -- or find her mother in permanent residence in London until she did take a husband. The possibility that Gus might have to endure living with her mother day in and out motivated Gus to find at least one suitable candidate for wedded bliss. Only Lionel Eldridge had emerged from the pack with his ever ready smile as his drawing card.
"Don't worry, honey," Raine soothed her, "we're going to help you."
Gus puckered her lips. If you really want to do that, you could help me remain single.
"Unfortunately," Ann said as if she had read Gus's mind, "opening your own fencing academy -- "
"Or photography studio -- " Raine interjected.
"Is not on your mama's list of acceptable pastimes," Ann concluded, as she tugged on her gloves. "Come tomorrow with your own list of reasons why Lionel is the right man."
"And that list," Raine continued, "should be short."
"Very," Ann insisted. "There is one reason only to marry him."
Do you love him?
Gus could. If she put her mind to it. She would begin tonight, before Ann and Raine raided it tomorrow.
She shooed them toward the door. "Go home, the four of you." She kissed them each good-night. Simpson, the butler, who had stood by during all this like a wooden statue, forbore Gus's intrusion on his duties. He locked the doors with a snick of the top and bottom rods, then a flick of the key.
By the time Gus heard the clink as he deposited it in the silver bowl atop the reception table, she was climbing the stairs. She had enjoyed the evening, but she had fretted the entire time. A week ago, Colleen had promised to come here tomorrow morning to visit. But a note from her, delivered by regular post in this afternoon's delivery, said she wouldn't arrive. Changes in plans were a normal occurrence for Gus's sister. Especially when Colleen was in the throes of an affair with a man.
Gus thrust open her door and sighed, sinking against it as it clicked in the lock. She removed her earbobs and reached around to undo two of the covered buttons of her dinner gown. The silk slid through her fingers like water and the bodice gaped. She needed to be able to breathe when she reread Colleen's letter. She had to be able to think clearly, because whatever her sister planned, particularly with a lover, meant Gus would deal with the dust Colleen kicked up.
Gus didn't want Colleen to ruin her prospects with Lionel Eldridge. Lionel was the only eligible bachelor who could make Gus's heart pound with his little jokes and his endearing blue-eyed winks. His kisses accomplished something more extraordinary. They made her want him physically. The way she had yearned for only one other man who was forbidden to her. Forbidden by law, custom -- and a bitter past that Colleen had created without remorse.
Gus would not think of him. Lionel was the one she would concentrate on. She smiled.
She tossed her pieces of jewelry in the air, grabbed them, and decided against pulling the bell rope for her maid. She didn't want to talk with anyone. She needed to come to terms with the fact that she had to marry this season. Or never.
She strode toward her fire and halted.
The sight of a man's greatcoat draped over her chair like a raven's wing startled her. But her recognition of the initials tooled into the leather gloves calmed her.
Bryce. Her heartbeat picked up a faster tempo.
Bryce was here. But why was he in her bedroom? He had never acted rudely to anyone, including her.
She was gazing into the flames, but she could swear she felt his breathing. Inside her. Where she never wanted him to be. Where she had shut him out for five long years.
Why had he come here? In the middle of the night?
The voice of experience announced the cause.
Colleen. Of course.
What had her sister done now?
Gus turned about slowly. In the umber shadows cast by the gas lamps, she could detect his long legs in dark trousers. His hand, broad but finely boned, lay along the armrest. His gold signet ring hung heavy on his smallest finger. In this pose, he appeared the lord of all he surveyed. The twelfth Earl of Aldersworth whom her sister Colleen had loved, married, and cuckolded as viciously as any shrew would gut a foe.
Gus walked toward him. Her heart banging against her ribs, she watched his breath expand his chest like bellows. She knew well this sign of his anger. "Bryce." She knelt before him. Took his hand. For a man who was hot-blooded, his skin was as cold as a dead man's. "Did Simpson let you in? He didn't tell us."
"I came in the servants' entrance."
"But why? Ann and Raine were here for dinner with Rhys and Gavin, and you could have joined..." He shifted and she suddenly saw his face. "...us."
My God. In the past five years, she had seen Bryce Falconer happy, thoughtful, sad, enraged, but never like this. Never desolate.
"What's wrong?" she whispered. She didn't want to know. She recoiled at the horror she predicted was coming. What had happened? She leaned forward and pressed her palm to his cheek. He stopped breathing. "Oh, Bryce. What's the matter?"
In the crystal blue of his one good eye, insanity glittered. "Where's Colleen?"
"You heard me."
Gus drew back. Bryce Falconer had never spoken to her with animosity. "I don't think I -- "
When she took her hand from his face, he seized her wrist and forced it to his thigh. Beneath her flesh, she felt the corded tension of his. She had fantasized for months after she first met him of touching him so intimately, tracing his contours with her fingers...and her lips. But she had put those daydreams away when Colleen married him. Gus told herself she thought of Bryce now exactly as he did of her. As a friend.
"Don't pretend you don't know, Gussie."
She pulled farther away. "I'm not."
He dragged her forward, between his legs. "She tells you everything." He was seething.
Her breasts, nearly bare in the loosened bodice of an already low-cut gown, rubbed across his smooth wool frockcoat. She shivered at the friction. He caught her around the waist and crushed her closer.
Her skin slid along the pebbly damask of his waistcoat and her sense of smell roused to the aroma of his signature cologne. What frightened her was the way her body reacted to his: the way it always did. Her nipples hardened and her stomach knotted.
He cupped her chin. "You know where she is. I can see it in your eyes." His own misted.
Her anger melted, but not her resolve to maintain her role as friend to both her sister and her former brother-in-law. "Bryce, I've worked too long at carving an impartial position for myself to give it up now. I don't know why you want to know where Colleen is, but you must realize that you cannot force the information out of me."
He cut her a look that warned she could try him too far. But he swallowed hard and reconsidered as his gaze dropped to her mouth. His grip on her drifted from force to embrace. He brought her nearer and put his lips to her hairline. "God, I'm sorry, Gussie." He kissed her temple and her eyes closed. She couldn't help herself as she nestled closer, her hands free and climbing around his shoulders.
You cannot embrace him. She pushed back. There was a limited amount of Bryce Falconer she could enjoy and remain sane. That meant staying out of his arms.
She rose to her feet. She headed into her sitting room and without asking, poured both of them a draught of cognac.
He had his head in his hands when she returned. She knelt again before him. When he did not move, she combed her fingers through his shock of straight blond hair. "Drink this."
He raised his face and inspected hers. "How can the two of you be related?"
"We have qualities in common." She wrapped his fingers around the delicate glass.
He snorted. "Like what?"
We both adore you. "For every trait I'd list, you'd only refute me. Take a few sips of that. Come into the sitting room and get warm by the fire."
"Why not? You mustn't sit here. You're still frozen." He tried the Napoleon and shook his head no. She did not want to argue with him, but help him whatever his troubles. "Did you come all the way from Aldersworth tonight?" She understood from Colleen that Bryce had taken Ford to his country estate before Christmas and had expected to remain in Northamptonshire until spring.
"Yes. I came as fast as I could." He took another sip.
"In this storm? The train would have been safer."
"It wasn't running. The rails were iced over. I had to see you tonight. My man made good time. I made it worth his while."
"I'm sure you did." For anyone who performed to his expectations, the twelfth Earl of Aldersworth was generous with his praise and any other reward he could dispense. To those who exceeded his expectations, Bryce was lavish in his compensation. If Bryce had been magnanimous before he met Colleen and she betrayed him, Gus did not know. She did know that the man who gave willingly to his friends, his servants and his only child was a man who had been betrayed by the one woman he had loved. Colleen had adored Bryce but craved her freedom more. She'd cut his heart out -- and left no remnants there available to any other woman. Only Colleen's and Bryce's boy brought Bryce the love this man so fully deserved.
"Did you bring Ford?" she asked in a sudden panic. It was not like him to travel without his three-and-a-half-year-old son.
"No," he said above a hush. "I need your help, Gussie."
Bryce was the only one who still called her Gussie. She bristled at the name which made her sound like the dart in a garment. "I will do whatever I can for you, Bryce."
That was the same vow she had made Colleen, too, when she'd been six and their mother had taken a whip to Gus -- and Colleen had offered herself as a substitute. Colleen had been Gus's saving grace as a child. Gus promised to aid her sister whenever she could. Even when Colleen had set her cap for this dashing man.
Gus had spent the last five years navigating the treacherous waters of loving her sister -- and suppressing her love for her sister's husband. Gus prided herself she'd been successful. Colleen knew that her little sister had once appreciated Bryce with all the enthusiasm of a sixteen-year-old girl, because Gus's desire had sparked Colleen's competitive nature. Colleen had bet Gus she could induce the Earl of Aldersworth to propose to her. Gus later learned from Colleen herself that she had seduced him into marriage.
"What has Colleen done?" Gus knew some of Colleen's news from her note. Colleen had taken up with another rogue. An Irish poet. A man who only last year set Dublin and London afire with his seduction of a married woman -- a duchess fourteen years his senior. Leave it to Colleen to pick a man guaranteed to get her mentioned in the gossip sheets. Colleen had taken -- how many? -- four or five lovers since Bryce had divorced her? With each successive man, Bryce was less surprised, more embarrassed. Gus grew less scandalized, more compassionate of the sister who knew she was a profligate, hated her irresponsibility and did not know how to stop herself.
Bryce put his glass down on the nearby table. He laced his fingers together and slowly squeezed. Gus watched his knuckles whiten and realized that, in his viselike grip, he was strangling her sister.
He stared at Gus, hatred in his every word. "Colleen has kidnapped Ford and she wants two million pounds sterling for his ransom."
Copyright © 1999 by Jo-Ann Power