To wed the widow, p.1

  To Wed The Widow, p.1

To Wed The Widow

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To Wed The Widow

  About To Wed The Widow

  A man with a Future, the Honorable George Sinclair would rather poke his eye out than take his place beside his brother and learn How To Be An Earl. But when an earl orders, a brother obeys. And when an earl tries to make his brother steady and responsible and old and gray, well. . . it just might kill them both.

  A woman with a Past, Lady Haywood is a scandalous distraction that no honorable gentleman can ignore. Especially one who’s just been told that his very happy life is changing irrevocably to the boring. But even if a scandalous distraction is what George wants, what he needs is a wife. A virgin wife. A scandal-less wife. . .

  The earl would be the first to say that his brother has always had a problem choosing what he needs over what he wants. Lady Haywood would say that very few women who have buried five husbands would bother with a sixth. And George would say. . . why, this sounds like fine fun.

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  The room erupted into hushed whispers and excited laughter and the very Honorable George Sinclair breathed it in deeply and thought to himself, for the first time, that it was good to be home.

  He hadn’t missed England. India had sunk into his bones; the heat, the food, the never-ending roar of life. He hadn’t wanted to leave; he mourned the fact that he’d never be able to return.

  India had sent him home a changed man. He’d never be warm again; his greatcoat was now a permanent part of his wardrobe no matter how brightly the weak English sun tried to shine. Food would never taste again; flavorless, spiceless, and missing that now familiar bite. And he stayed as far from the country as he could because the silence was too much to take.

  That, and his brother the earl.

  He was too much to take as well.

  But here, in town, with the excitement of balls and the roar of life and the rules, here George Sinclair found what he hadn’t realized he’d been missing.


  The noise level somehow both increased and decreased at the same time as she entered and he turned to look at just who could cause such a commotion.

  Her golden hair piled high atop her head, her plunging neckline peaking coyly from beneath row upon row of jeweled necklaces.

  She paused, looking down on her subjects and they looked back, twittering and fluttering, and Sinclair thought that it was not enough. There should have been trumpets fanfaring and fireworks exploding because a regal queen had deigned to grace them with her presence.

  Sinclair poked his friend in the side. “Just who, pray tell, is that?”

  George St. Clair looked to where his friend pointed and fingered his cravat. “Mmm. The widow.”

  Sinclair trembled with delight. “She has an epithet? The widow? How very intriguing.”

  “A richly deserved one. She has had five husbands, all dead within one year of the wedding. The last, rumor has it, died whilst in bed and under her. Two weeks ago.”

  Sinclair jolted when he realized her dress was black. That she was in mourning. Her dress skimmed here and flared there, and despite the color said nothing about mourning.

  Sinclair’s eyes followed the curves and flares and he said, “Lucky scoundrel.”

  St. Clair snorted and Sinclair looked at him with an eyebrow raised. “Is that not the most fervent wish of every man? To die naked, in bed, and beneath a beautiful woman riding him into everlasting oblivion?”

  “It is apparently many a man’s wish because she has no lack of suitors.”

  “But not you?”

  “I require a man be cold in his grave before I start in on his widow.”

  Sinclair looked again at the woman, at the long limbs and golden hair that gave proof that some Viking had pilfered and pillaged somewhere in her blood line.

  Her black dress not stark but richly adorned, making her pale skin even paler, her golden hair even more golden.

  Sinclair sighed. “Mourning suits her.”

  “It does.”

  Sinclair looked at his friend, noting the lines on his face and the tired look in his eyes that eight years had wrought.

  “It’s suited her well for nearly a decade and with a handful of husbands. Remember that, Sin, before you become too enamored.”

  “You don’t like her?”

  St. Clair looked back at the woman, studying her, and when their eyes caught across the room, she smiled and made her way toward them.

  “I know you will like her. And I have no wish to stand over your grave, my friend.”

  Sinclair laughed. “I may like her, I may acquaint myself with all England has to offer now that I must, but marriage? Should I lose my mind, the earl will surely take it upon himself to find it for me.”

  St. Clair clapped his friend on the back, smiling despite himself. “It’s good to have you home, Sin. And you can count on me, as well, to take up that task if it becomes necessary.”

  “See? It is good to be home. I can play with whatever delectable scandal that crosses my path as long as you two are watching over me like clucking hens.”

  “We wouldn’t need to if you didn’t look at scandal like a boy getting his first glimpse up the milkmaid’s frock.”

  The widow snaked through the crowd, close enough now that she might be able to hear their conversation, and Sinclair said, “I have matured, my friend, since then. And I assure you that I can keep my wits about me in the presence of such beauty. Long golden locks and, oh my, crystal blue eyes.”

  St. Clair shook his head. “All the better to snare her prey.”

  The widow stopped in front of them, flicking open her fan to wave it idly. “Talking of me, Mr. St. Clair? You are always so flattering.”

  He bowed, stiff and just this side of disapproving. “May I introduce Mr. George Sinclair. And this is Elinor Rusbridge Lemmon Gilberti Wooten Headley, Lady Haywood. Did I leave any out, my lady?”

  She laughed, a low amused sound that would make any red-blooded man think of silk sheets and naked limbs.

  Sinclair bowed theatrically enough to make up for his friend’s lack of manners. Flamboyantly enough to snag her attention to him.

  The widow said, “George Sinclair and George St. Clair? However will I tell you apart?”

  Sinclair leaned toward her. “Just remember, my lady, the sinner and the saint. And then forget the saint.”

  Her smile peeked out from behind her fan and she whispered conspiratorially, “Forgotten.”

  Sinclair leaned in even closer and didn’t whisper. “Good.”

  They laughed, sharing in their little joke, and St. Clair bowed, leaving his friend to fend for himself. Sinclair was reminded of just what a good friend the man was.

  The widow watched St. Clair’s back as he walked away from them, her fan still waving slowly.

  “I’m surprised he left you here, with me. I thought I heard you were good friends, back in the day.”

  “Good friends, we are. The only friend I willingly put pen to paper during my long years in India.”

  “The friendship must be more one-sided than you realize.” And in her words was the truth that it was her St. Clair didn’t like.

  Sinclair shook his head. “My friend. Who knows me better than myself. Who knows it is very hard to distract me once I’ve seen something I like.”

  She turned her eyes to him, dismissing St. Clair.

he waved her fan, still smiling, and studied his coiffed brown hair. His cravat. His waistcoat.

  He waited for her to say she liked what she saw as well but out came, “And how is India? As uncivilized as one hears?”

  Sinclair jolted at uncivilized. He’d been gone a long time, perhaps he was out of practice at this particular game.

  “It is wonderful, and until but a moment ago, I was devising numerous schemes to get back there. Now, though, I find England and her wares intoxicating.”

  “Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr. Sinclair.”

  He murmured, “Excellent.”

  Her fan sped up, their eyes caught. The crowd pushed her closer and she said softly, “Do you know why your friend Mr. St. Clair doesn’t like me?”

  “I assumed it was a personal failing.”

  She laughed, her hair moving precariously atop her head and he noticed there was gold tinsel woven through it.

  “It is. My personal failing.”

  He sniffed and her dark musky scent surrounded him.

  “I have known George St. Clair since our school days and you for but one minute, and I can assure you, it is not your personal failing.”

  She was still laughing when she shrugged one shoulder, a surprisingly Gallic gesture for so Nordic a complexion.

  “I like torturing him. I can’t help it. And I wonder if I can wind Mr. St. Clair so tight that he will shatter.”

  “It can’t be done. Trust me.”

  “So you think I should give it up? Admit defeat?”

  Sinclair nodded. “I think you should expend your energies on a more worthwhile cause.”

  Their eyes were nearly even, she was such a tall woman, and her hair towered over him. She only had to lean in to whisper in his ear, “I don’t give up. I don’t admit defeat.”

  She pulled back, rapping his forearm with her fan hard enough to sting, and turned away from him.

  She said over her shoulder as she walked away, “But you should perhaps listen to your friend, Mr. Sinclair. I like to play with my prey.”

  The widow.

  The name swirled around Elinor in the overheated ballroom. Loud whispers behind fluttering fans, appreciative glances from the men, glares from the women.

  The ton had long ago decided what kind of woman she was, title or no title. And they weren’t entirely wrong.

  She’d buried husband number five not two weeks ago and she was out socializing?

  Unheard of! How shocking! The gall of the woman!

  She’d mourned a full year with husband number one. The aging viscount who’d wanted a pretty, young wife to care for him in his twilight years. Who hadn’t cared just how muddied her family tree was since he already had his heir. And his heir already had an heir.

  And if a pretty, young woman had wanted a husband only for his title, for the respect he could paint her with, she couldn’t have picked any better.

  He’d given her his name– the name she even now answered to, four husbands later– had planted a child in her, and only one year later had made her a widow. With a title! Money!

  Except the child hadn’t lived. And there hadn’t been any money. Not for her.

  And husband number two had become a necessity. Along with better solicitors.

  Elinor searched the ballroom, smiling vaguely and waving her fan. Meeting the wide-eyed stares of the debutantes, the narrowed glances of the dowagers.

  The married men she ignored. The old men she flirted with.

  She batted her eyelashes at the young men, touching her fan to her lips and making them blush.

  She wasn’t set on any one man, yet.

  A certain kind of man, certainly.

  George St. Clair would have fit the bill if he wasn’t so. . .George St. Clair.

  And you could call Elinor Rusbridge any kind of woman you liked but she was a realist. George St. Clair would never fall for her or her plan. He would be work for an uncertain reward.

  His tanned friend there, fresh from India, was a possibility. He wanted some fun. The kind of fun Elinor had never given to any man she hadn’t been married to before, though she’d certainly been offered it.

  She’d been married five times, and she knew the easiest way to get to that state was to make a man dizzy with desire. And not let him get undizzy until after the wedding.

  Husband number two had been flabbergasted that a widow could be as tight-legged as a blushing virgin. Had, really, lost his mind in his pursuit of her.

  A merchant, his money made from trade, his desire for a wife of title, a woman of lineage even if it was only a step up from his, the lovely man had given her everything he’d owned.

  She’d made his reward well worth the wait. And they’d been happy for that one year.

  Husband number two had also been honored with a full year of mourning. He’d choked on a soup bone and left her his fortune, after all.

  After his death and her subsequent inheritance, she’d had the pick of the ton.

  It was a lesson Elinor had learned well. It wasn’t a title that granted respect, it was money.

  She supposed she could have stopped with the husbands after number two. It was number three that had turned her into a caricature for the society columns.

  But she’d wanted more.

  She always wanted more.

  This husband, this time, required a different plan than a pretty face and knowledgeable eyes and tight legs. More than a beautiful woman whipping a man into a frenzy. It would require skill and timing. And luck.

  She was not entirely certain she could pull it off, and the uncertainty of it was making her extremely picky.

  A cup of punch was suddenly thrust at her, a hand cupped her elbow.

  “Looking for me?”

  She turned, a smile on her lips and steel in her voice. “I wasn’t.”

  Golden blond hair a shade less lustrous than her own and blue eyes a smidgen less sparkly looked back at her.

  “Father is turning in his grave at the spectacle you’re making.”

  “I doubt it.”

  “Subtlety, Elinor. Subtlety,” he said, and her brother sounded so much like their father that Elinor nearly shuddered.

  He kept his hand on her arm, tight enough to hurt. “If you’re not looking for me, who are you looking for?”

  “Who do you think the widow is looking for? Why are you here?”

  “I was invited. As a special guest.”

  “That seems unlikely.”

  He waved behind her and when Elinor turned, there was the hostess frowning at them.

  “You should go reassure her that your attentions aren’t straying, brother dear.”

  “Oh, she knows about you. She has her own family ghosts; she knows about embarrassing relations.”

  Elinor didn’t even feel the dig. “And her husband? He doesn’t care about special guests?”

  Her brother put a fist on one cocked hip and said in a sing-song voice, “Not this special guest. This special guest is helping her redo her wardrobe to outshine Lady Westin. This special guest has no interest in the boudoir except what pattern the wallpaper is.”

  Her brother was very good at choosing what kind of special friend would most suit his purposes and Elinor didn’t doubt he would keep himself out of the lady’s bed.

  She said, “And how much his commission is when he gets her to replace it.”

  Alan squeezed her arm tighter, trying to get her to flinch, to drop the cup.

  “You’ve chosen your path, my lovely sister. I’ve chosen mine.” His eyes flowed up her hair and he said, “Not all of us have such beauty to sell to the highest bidder.”

  She quoted her father, even if the words left a bad taste in her mouth. “Beauty and brains. The deadliest combination.”

  Alan’s face tightened. “Never forget, Elinor, which of us got the lion’s share of brains.”

  The rage and jealousy that flowed from her brother was old, a wound that could never heal. A wound her father had picked at an
d spit on until there was no love to lose between the siblings.

  It didn’t help that poor husband number three had come between them. Had chosen her over her brother.

  The Italian Stallion. Marcus. And Elinor still mourned him, her first friend, in her heart.

  He’d been beautiful. Tall and manly and fashionable. Everything a gentleman should be.

  And everything a gentleman really was.

  A completely different man when he was in the comfort of his own home than he was out in society.

  Elinor had fallen for it, all of it, and it was only her excellent solicitors who’d kept her from losing her hard-earned money to her brother and his lover.

  Their year of marriage had consisted of one shock and lie discovered after another. One year of scheming and fighting, and then gradually clinging to each other in the storm of her brother’s rage and hate and jealousy.

  Husband number three had been the only man who’d seen inside her, who’d known who and what she really was. The only man who’d snuck into her heart, and she into his.

  And then, a fall from his horse, a broken neck, and the widow had been born.

  She’d mourned him in public for only six months and she’d tightened in the waist of all her dresses, fashion be damned, to prove there was no posthumous child. She’d used those extra six months to choose more wisely. To be more sure of her next husband.

  Elinor patted her brother’s cheek with her free hand. “You got the lion’s share of something, my loving brother.”

  His hand jerked around her arm, the feeling in her fingertips getting fainter the longer he held on and she smiled wider at him. Proving just who was getting to whom. Hoping she could prove it before her hand went all the way numb.

  George Sinclair sidled up to them, then stopped suddenly when he saw Alan. He looked between them, then down at the hand still gripping her elbow and the cup of punch in her hand.

  He looked down at the two cups in his hands and then back up into her eyes. “Oh. I thought you wanted punch. Isn’t that what you said?”

  He sounded simple and lost, and Elinor smiled at him wide enough to make him blink and really lose the use of his faculties.

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