Sarah Murphy’s father has a gambling problem. Until now, it’s only been a minor irritation in her otherwise stellar Season in London. But his most recent vowels are greater than her family can afford, so her father agrees to pay his debt—by selling his only daughter to the depraved viscount he owes.
He was an unlikely hero…
Sir Percival Barnes returns from war, newly knighted and battle weary. When he learns of Sarah’s predicament, he offers to marry her and rescue her from ruin. The benefit of such an offer also means he’ll finally have the woman he’s loved for years. And judging by her reaction to his kisses, she is worth the wait.
Some sacrifices are worth making…
Percy is Sarah’s personal knight, even if he doesn’t have the shiny armor or mighty sword. He’s returned from war more confident, and definitely more appealing than the quiet, intelligent boy she remembered. Dancing in his arms at a ball, she can almost forget the choice she has to make—between her own happiness and her father’s life—unless they can devise another way to satisfy her father’s debt.
Theme song: So Close by Jon McLaughlin
Stepping onto the landing, Miss Sarah Murphy surveyed the ballroom, analyzing each of the eligible bucks dancing below. At least four of her current suitors were pleasant enough, but did not have the funds she required. Encouraging them would only lead to disaster. This evening promised a new group from which to choose. The ladies’ colored skirts and gentlemen’s coats looked like a garden in full spring bloom—jeweled tones intertwined with pastels and demure white silk gowns, reflected in every mirrored and glittering surface. Her closest friend, Emily, would describe it as magical, but to Sarah, it was merely another opportunity to preen oneself, becoming bait to catch a husband.
Despite her advanced age of one and twenty, her first Season had been a rousing success. The ton had embraced her, and sought her company at each outing. She wasn’t fooled, though. If not for the sponsorship of Emily’s grandmother, the Marchioness of Bandbridge, none of the young men would look her way, no matter how comely she was. Sarah would be forced to choose a husband from the country gentry, and none had the wherewithal to salvage her family’s fortune. Logically speaking, her beauty was her bargaining chip. With any luck, she’d attract a husband who also sought an intelligent wife, but the odds were against it, so she focused on looking her best at all times. She could not afford to have a second Season.
Her father, Baron Peeling, stood at the bottom of the steps, just outside the door to the gaming room. From her vantage point, she saw the corner of the billiard table, as well as a table for cards. Viscount Gilray must have waylaid him on the way to his usual seat. As much as she hated to feel beholden to anyone, she prayed the odious viscount would continue to occupy her father’s attention. The less time her father spent playing cards, the less in debt they’d be.
Gilray glanced up, met her gaze, and nodded—more a clandestine way to sweep his gaze over her body—before leaving her father. She groaned at the sight of her father’s back as he entered the gaming room and checked the clock. If his luck held, they would remain at the ball for several hours. If not, then she needed to find her chaperone and begin dancing.
An hour later, she sipped her lemonade and rested before her next dance partner came to claim her. Each of the gentlemen she’d met this evening was charming, and she mentally organized them into categories to keep track of them. Tomorrow, she’d be able to narrow the list down, based on who came to call.
“Who are you dancing with next?” Emily appeared at Sarah’s side, breathless. Her blonde curls bounced at her temples, and her eyes shone with excitement.
“Lord Ladun.” She struggled to remember what the young earl looked like, and gave up when the only image her memory produced was an amalgam of four or five other gentlemen. Turning her attention to her friend, she noticed Emily’s curls bounced because she was still bouncing. “And who might you be partnered with at the next set?” Sarah asked, knowing full well only one man would cause Emily such delight.
Emily’s answer was interrupted by the arrival of Sarah’s father from one direction, and a gangly man with dark hair from the other. Ah, yes. She focused on Lord Ladun’s hawklike nose so she could remember his face next time.
“Come with me.” Her father grasped her elbow, and led her to the potted palms along the far wall without so much as a nod of acknowledgement to her dance partner.
“What have you done?” She craned her neck to focus her narrowed gaze on the man who sired her. For her father to pull her from an earl, the situation must be dire. The noises of the revelry around them faded as dread mounted in her belly.
“Now, sweeting, what makes you think I have done anything?” Lord Peeling blinked at his daughter, his eyes not quite hiding his guilt.
Sarah crossed her arms. Her father was a good man, but not particularly good at gambling, and she never knew when he would announce that he’d lost everything.
Well, she thought, not tonight. He would likely avoid her if that was the news he must impart. In fact, if he had lost everything, she’d probably hear about it through the gossip mill rather than his own lips.
At her continued silence, he drew a deep breath and exhaled in an exaggerated motion. “Very well. I was hoping to save the surprise until tomorrow, but I suppose I can tell you now.” Pausing for effect, his gaze darted everywhere but her face.
Oh, God. If he hadn’t planned on telling her until morning, why did he drag her from Lord Ladun? And what might he have to say that he couldn’t meet her eyes?
He waved to an acquaintance and, from the corner of his mouth, said, “I’ve found you a husband.”
“A…a husband?” In all the possibilities she’d considered, a betrothal was not included.
He drew himself up, puffing out his rather thin chest. Though his voice remained low, the indignation was apparent.
“Is that not why we’re in this God-forsaken town? I begged you to find someone closer to home, but you insisted that you must have the opportunity to visit London—”
“So that I may choose my own husband!” Realizing the shriek attracting a number of stares was her own voice, she closed her eyes and took a calming breath. Besides adequate funds, she wanted to marry a man without a penchant for gambling, and if her father had chosen, the odds were favorable that the man was someone he’d met at the tables.
“Who?” she asked.
Dear God in Heaven, had he been drinking tonight as well? That did not bode well at all.
“To whom am I being married?” A hint of frustration leaked through her gritted teeth and she fought an unfamiliar urge to cry.
“Oh, dearest.” A smile lit his face, convincing her further that he’d partaken of spirits. “You’ll be happy to know I landed you a viscount. Gilray, to be exact. He’s quite pleased with the arrangement.”
“You are speechless with delight.” The gentleman in question chose that moment to join them, and she wisely refrained from sharing her thoughts on the subject. “Have you imparted the delightful news, Peeling?”
Her stomach churned.
Lord Gilray was older than her father, with ruddy cheeks that drooped past his chin and small eyes set close together. Those black eyes had no other discernible color, so far as she could tell. Sadly, of her two requirements for a husband, he fulfilled one—the funds. For her father’s sake, she would be courteous until the viscount left. Then she would plead with her sire to reconsider.
“Good evening, Lord Gilray.” She curtsied as she’d been taught, but dropped her head to hide her grimace, rather than out of deference.
“There is a waltz next. I should like to dance with you.” Not a request, but a command.
Without even trying to hide her panicked expression from either man, she reached for her father’s arm. Let him behave like an overprotective father, and tell Gilray that it would be improper for her to dance a waltz with him. Just this once, let him think of her well-being and not the next opportunity to win money.
But he didn’t. Instead, he pulled his arm from her grasp and turned to Gilray.
“She is honored.” His eyes flickered with guilt, sadness, and relief, all in a jumble, before he turned and left.
Staring after him in disbelief, she didn’t notice when Gilray stepped closer to her.
“I should like it very much.” His gin-laden breath wafted over her. “I had no idea it would be such a fortuitous evening.”
“I’m not sure I understand your meaning, sir.” Keeping her eyes on the floor, she concentrated on the logical arguments she could bring to her father later. There must be a way to change his mind about this situation. It had to be a mistake.
“Oh, didn’t your father tell you? He lost a great deal of money earlier this evening.”
Of course he had. Since they arrived in London, her father had lost a great deal of money every evening. A series of knots took up residence in her stomach and her chest ached.
Gilray continued, “Being the gentleman I am, I hadn’t the heart to send him scurrying to sell every unentailed property trying to repay me, so I offered him a trade of sorts.”
She nearly snorted—she’d already sold off all but one unentailed property in her father’s name, to pay off previous gaming debts, so Gilray would be hard pressed to find repayment from that avenue. As the realization dawned on her just what they had traded, she saw a way out.
“But my lord, surely you understand that if he owes that much, I will have no dowry.”
The viscount laughed—a sinister, debauched sound that chilled her to her soul. “I’ve no need of financial recompense. In fact, there are other assets in which I am more interested.”
When she glanced at him, his eyes were glued to her bodice and she shuddered as a wave of nausea rose to her throat.
“Already trembling in my presence? Excellent.”
“My Lord, if you will excuse me but a moment, I must visit the retiring room.” She didn’t wait for him to respond pushed her way through the crowd to the glass doors leading outside.
The guests’ attire no longer seemed quite so cheerily floral—now the pale dresses and gray coats resembled a churning sea, with dark, dangerous undercurrents, determined to pull her beneath the waves. Amazing how one’s perceptions can change as quickly as one’s circumstances.
Fighting the new tide of dancers moving to take the floor, she made her way to the terrace doors and slipped out into the cool night air. She needed to calm herself and think rationally. Her mother would be no help, as she was home with another headache and would not emerge from her room until midday tomorrow. Once again, Sarah would need to rely on herself to fix the problem. They were running out of property to sell. The true obstacle was figuring out a way to pay her father’s debt to Gilray’s satisfaction, without marriage.
She skirted the edge of light seeping from the ballroom and walked along the colonnade until she could no longer hear the orchestra except for a chord here and there when the air shifted just so. Leaning back against the cool marble column she looked up at the dim stars and counted them until she felt calm enough to think about the situation without emotion. Emotions clouded one’s ability to think and she needed all her wits about her to solve this debacle.
Time passed, though she wasn’t sure how long she stood there, but no matter how she viewed the situation, she couldn’t think of anything but the depraved hunger in Gilray’s eyes. Or the bile she tasted each time that image sneaked into her mind. There would be consequences when she returned—she’d deliberately missed the dance with Gilray and disappeared from the ball entirely. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to go back.
She meandered, not back toward the stuffy ballroom, but toward the garden gate at the back of the property. Escape was an appealing option, but she knew she wouldn’t make it far. London streets were dangerous after dark, even in Mayfair. Besides, she wasn’t dressed for extended amounts of time outdoors and her father’s modest townhome was more than a few blocks away. The moisture in the ground was already seeping into her cloth slippers and the cold chilled her nearly as much as the idea of marrying Gilray.
Suddenly, her toe connected with something hard, jutting out onto the garden path, and she pitched forward. Her arms flailed out in front of her, an instinctive attempt to keep herself from landing on her face. She hadn’t anticipated strong arms wrapping around her middle to catch her, nor had she counted on being pulled back into a solid chest, warmth radiating through her gown and eradicating the iciness in her bones.
“My apologies, miss.” A deep voice vibrated the air near her ear and a shiver traveled down her spine. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to come this far into the shadows.”
“I needed some air,” she stuttered, her breaths coming short. The man’s arm was still wrapped tight around her, his forearm grazing the undersides of her breasts. Her gown felt too tight and the warmth now coursing through her was unrelated to the heat of his body. She wanted to sink back into him, for no other reason than that she felt safe. It was preposterous, yet she could not shake the feeling.
Almost as if he sensed her thoughts, he tightened his hold and leaned closer, keeping her where she was. She couldn’t turn to face him if she tried. His fingers began to smooth the sides of her gown, tickling her ribs but she didn’t feel like laughing—she felt like melting. Desire shot through her and she chided herself on her emotional reaction.
“A young lady should stay out of the shadows, lest she encounter someone unsavory.” The whisper caressed the side of her face, the curl at her temple brushing her skin with his words. Her breath hitched.
Sudden boldness prompted her to lick her lips and respond, “And are you someone unsavory?”
“No.” He abruptly released her and stepped back and she fought to keep from swaying toward him again.
She broke the spell he’d woven over her and turned to face him. In the dim light she could make out his general features and gasped.
His eyes were shadowed but she knew they were the color of the sea on a clear day, framed by long lashes. Intelligent, and observant. She’d wondered more than once if he could read her mind. The golden hair that used to spill to his shoulders, in the previous generation’s fashion, was absent. Had he tied it back or cut it? His formal attire was dark, so she was unable to discern the color of his waistcoat, but the simple white cravat shone like a beacon.
“Miss Murphy.” He grasped her hand and bowed low. “You really shouldn’t be out here. Go back the ball. I’m sure your father will be searching for you.”
She snorted. Her father was more likely back at the gaming tables, trying to convince other lords to let him play with credit.
“But what are you doing out here?” It was impossible to see him clearly in the dark, but she strained her eyes anyway. His shoulders were broader than she recalled, reminding her that he was no longer a boy playing at being a man. She recalled the desire she felt when he held her and shook herself. This was Percy. Her best friend’s older brother. She’d known him since the three of them were in leading strings, romping near the seashore. Her sudden attraction to him was a trick of the darkness and the fact that she hadn’t known it was him when his arm was wrapped tightly around her. The excitement came from the unknown.
“Never mind that,” he answered, his tone gruff. “Just go back to the ball.”
“Very well.” Though she tried to stifle it, she still sounded petulant. Brushing past him, another flurry of tingles coursed through her, causing her to stop and look up at him. Where had these sensations come from? She carefully made her way through the garden paths until she was standing just inside the ballroom again and her predicament flooded her. In the brief time she spent with Percy, she’d forgotten that her life had been gambled away by her wastrel father. And she still hadn’t come up with any solutions.
“There you are!” An arm linked with hers and her best friend stood beside her. Emily Barnes had been Sarah’s closest friend and confidante since they could speak. She had her brother Percy’s coloring—blonde, blue-eyed, with a heart-shaped face a cherub would envy. Her cheeks were flushed as though she’d just completed a dance set.
With a bright smile, Emily pulled Sarah to the refreshment table.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you! You will never guess who I just danced with.”
“Mr. Walker.” Emily’s face fell a little, so Sarah tried to think whom else her friend would be so excited to see. “Not Mr. Walker?”
“How did you guess?”
“He was the logical choice. First, you are glowing. And I know you set your cap for him long ago. Second—”
“Sarah.” Emily sighed, but the smile remained on her face. “Sometimes I wish you would just allow me to tell you.”
Sarah shrugged and turned to watch the dancers. “So, tell me about it. Did he mention why it’s taken him so bloody long to approach you?”
“You shouldn’t curse. It’s not ladylike.” Emily’s father was the rector of Sarah’s parish, though at times Mr. Barnes was more like a father to both of them, and Emily had absorbed all of his teachings. Sarah had spent more of her childhood at the Barnes’ small cottage than at her own house, but she heard unladylike language too often at her own home when her father lost large sums. There were situations when a proper response simply lacked vehemence.
“I know, but it seemed appropriate.”
Emily shot her a stern look before her expression returned to bemusement. “It was lovely. I wasn’t sure Father was going to allow it at first.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “It was the waltz.”
Sarah’s attempt to look scandalized probably seemed more like a pantomime, but inside, she was happy for her friend. Emily had been in love with Mr. Walker for two years and had recently begun to despair of him ever noticing her. Though Sarah’s logical mind rebelled against putting that much effort into something that was essentially a business arrangement, a wistful part of her wished her friend well. In fact, now that her own marriage to someone who nauseated her loomed, she was rethinking the idea of marriage altogether.
“What’s wrong?” Emily asked.
Sarah blinked. “What do you mean?”
“You looked like you smelled something horrid. The waltz isn’t so bad, I promise. In fact, it’s divine.”
“No, not at all. I was thinking about…nothing.” She smiled, trying to put Emily at ease and forget her own difficulties. For now. “Was it everything you’d hoped?”
Emily launched into a moment by moment description of Mr. Walker’s request, how he swept her into his arms, and how they glided across the floor. Sarah made a sincere effort to keep the encouraging smile on her face and not let her own situation cloud her expression, even when the Vile Viscount entered her line of sight.
Unfortunately, he saw her, too.
Her fingers tightened around her delicate fan and she glanced around for a means to escape. There was none. Before she took one step away from Emily, Lord Gilray was upon them.
“Pardon me, Miss Barnes. Miss Murphy and I have something to discuss.”
With that, the odious man reached out and gripped her elbow, maneuvering her to a less crowded area, but still within view. She followed, more out of shock than obedience. Plus, his fingers were painfully tight around her arm.
“I trust that when your father’s vowels are satisfied, you will be less willful. Where did you go?”
“I don’t believe that is any of your concern.”
He stepped closer, his foul breath washing over her, and smiled at her retreat. “Perhaps not yet. But you will come to like what I have to offer, my dear.” His cruel gaze dipped to her bodice. “And I’m certain I will enjoy what you have to give.”
She looked around for an excuse to leave him, but froze when his fetid breath blew on her ear.
“Though I am unsure if any woman is truly worth a thousand pounds.”
A. Thousand. Pounds. A lump in her throat choked her as she realized her father was selling her for a thousand pounds. Logic fled her and panic took over. There was no way to fix this situation. No way for her to come up with that much money to pay him off. Dear God, every estate they had was already mortgaged or sold and her father had no means to pay such an exorbitant amount. She suddenly needed to sit down—her legs would no longer hold her. Wrenching her arm free, she turned and slammed into a wall.
She stumbled back, and learned the wall had arms.
Percy. Twice tonight she’d ended up in his arms and the safety she felt earlier returned tenfold. This time, she gave into the urge to sag into him, but only for a brief moment. He squeezed her before setting her to his side.
“Emily requested I fetch you and escort you home. Your father has already left.” Percy addressed her softly, but his gaze never left Gilray.
“I would request you remove your hands from what is mine,” Gilray said.
Percy’s gaze flicked between the two of them, confusion replacing the rage.
A business transaction. No emotion. These were things she’d been prepared for when she came to London to get married. The idea of marriage being a transfer of ownership from her father to Gilray caused bile to swell into her throat. Yet it was what she was in town for. Marriage to a man who could afford to overlook her family’s debt, unsavory as he might be. Love was for those who were either too poor to care about aught else, or too rich to have financial concerns.
Gilray continued, “Or rather she will be mine, if I deem her worthy of the price I’m paying for her.”