Rogue Most Wanted – Janna MacGregor

“In one hour, I’m going to be a changed man.” Lord William Cavensham, the second child and second son of the Duke and Duchess of Langham, high-stepped down the Mayfair street from his home to the residence of Lady Avalon Cavensham. “How so?” Mr. Devan Farris kept pace. “I’m asking Lady Avalon Cavensham to marry me,” Will announced. Just saying her name brought a rush of pleasure to him. She was perfect in every single way, from her gorgeous green eyes to her dark brown hair. Will had finished his last term at university two years ago, and during that time, he’d crossed the inevitable bridge from youth to adulthood. He’d waited for this day all his life, and now, everything he’d dreamed for his future was within his grasp. “You? Married?” The shock on Devan’s face turned the fellow’s normally tanned skin to an unhealthy sallow. It was difficult for Will to determine the exact shade as the sun cast an eerie red-orange glow this morning. It reminded him of the wallpaper from the East his great-aunt Stella favored in her Northumberland estate. “I’ve been at Oxford for less than six months. This is what I come home to? My God, you’re only nine and ten. That’s awfully young to face the hell of matrimony.

What about sowing your wild barley?” “Oats,” said Will. “Oats, wheat, mint—who cares? You understand what I’m saying. Don’t you want to enjoy life?” Devan adjusted the brim of his hat to shield his eyes from the sun. “Old man, you’re too young.” Will grinned and continued on his chosen path. He was known for his confidence and fast decision-making capabilities, particularly when he knew what he wanted out of life. Those traits ensured he succeeded where other men failed. Such qualities couldn’t be learned, in Will’s opinion. He had his long line of Cavensham ancestors to thank for those ingrained strengths that resided in every fiber of his being. Devan twirled his walking stick.

“At the age of nine and ten, no less.” “You’re repeating yourself. Besides, what does age have to do with it? How do you know that marriage isn’t the vehicle for me to enjoy life?” Will’s rhetorical questions silenced Devan momentarily. “We Cavensham men are known for falling in love quickly, decidedly, and thoroughly committed.” Devan snorted. “Committed to Bedlam, perhaps.” Will ignored the insult. “We make up our minds and go after the women we’re destined to spend our lives with. My grandfather, my uncle, and my father are examples of such a fate. It’s a Cavensham man’s destiny.

” “That’s absolute rubbish.” Devan stepped over a piece of refuse as they crossed a street and twitched his nose. “How long have you known the lovely Lady Avalon?” Will stopped suddenly, and Devan followed suit. “You already know the answer. Since we’re third cousins, I’ve know her all my life. We’ve seen each other at family events and house parties over the years.” Will had never paid much attention to Avalon until last Christmas when they played charades on that first day. With her fair beauty and gentle ways, he’d immediately fallen under her spell and thus, they were inseparable during the entire holiday—proof they were destined to be together. “Why is it that I’ve never heard about this grand love affair until now?” Devan swept a hand in front of him, inviting Will to continue their walk. “Under your theory, you should’ve fallen in love when you first met her.

Was that when you were the age of three?” The feigned sincerity in Devan’s tone didn’t hide his sarcasm, and Will stopped again. Like soap bubbles meeting their demise, Will’s confidence popped with doubt. What his friend said rang true. If Cavensham men fall in love quickly and completely, why hadn’t he felt anything for Avalon when they were growing up? “What’s the matter?” Devan asked innocently. “Nothing is the matter.” He dismissed the disturbing thought, which allowed his self-assurance to again hold center stage. Not anything or anyone—not even Devan—would mar the perfection of the day. “It’s easy to explain. We were too young to fall in love.” Devan nodded.

“Of course. It’s just an anomaly that Juliet was thirteen and Romeo was perhaps fifteen when they tragically fell in love.” “That’s fiction. This is life.” “Of course,” Devan replied dryly. “Shakespeare is highly overrated.” Will didn’t comment further as they stopped outside the large palladium home of Lord Fenton Cavensham, Avalon’s father and the Earl of Calderton. Will extended his hand to Devan. “Wish me luck.” Devan shook his hand with a firm grip.

“You don’t need luck. This is your destiny, remember?” He frowned as his friend took his leave while whistling a little too merrily. There was no cause to worry. By the way Avalon looked at him, she loved him as much as he loved her. Devan’s glib remark was the truth whether he realized it or not. This was Will’s destiny. Without further delay, Will walked through the ornate wrought iron gates with the Calderton coat of arms in the center, then chuckled. The peacock front and center in the design always made him laugh. Most coats of arms featured fearsome or mythological creatures, not some silly fowl. His family’s seal had two rearing lions back-to-back, symbolizing the family’s fierce sense of loyalty.

The butler greeted Will, then escorted him to the all-too-familiar formal salon. The room was tastefully decorated in green and brown brocades and silks, but it always reminded Will of a moat around an ancient castle. But it made little difference what room he was escorted to, because today he only had eyes for the enchanting Avalon. At the sound of the door opening, Will smiled and turned to greet her. Instead, the Earl of Calderton whisked into the room looking a little disgruntled if the crease between his eyes was any indication. “Lord William, what an unexpected surprise.” “Good morning, my lord,” Will answered. Lord Calderton waved a hand, offering William a seat on a puce sofa. After Will took his place at one end of the sofa, the earl settled his large frame at the other end. “What might I do for you this morning?” Will cleared his throat in an attempt to tamp down the sudden case of nerves that churned in his stomach.

“I’d hoped to have a word with Ava—I mean, Lady Avalon this morning. But your presence is quite fortuitous.” Without giving the earl a chance to comment, Will continued, “Sir, I’m here to request Lady Avalon’s hand in marriage.” The earl’s eyes widened to the size of full moons. “Pardon me?” “Lady Avalon and I love each other. It’s my greatest wish that you’ll give your blessing to our union.” The words tumbled from Will’s mouth. “She and I discussed this last week, and I told her I’d come today and seek her hand.” Finally, Will took a deep breath. It was finished.

Once the earl agreed, everything else was a formality. Avalon would glide down the steps shortly. Her father would leave to give them privacy, then Will would pop the question. They’d kiss. And it wouldn’t be just any kiss. He’d kiss her with a passion she’d never felt before—one worthy of the woman who’d captured his heart, the woman who would make all his dreams come true. As if Will had conjured her from his thoughts, Avalon entered the room. The piercing green depth of her eyes resembled a pair of malachite knives he’d seen as a youth in his father’s study. An appropriate description as her gaze pinned him in place. “Avalon, Lord William is here.

” The earl’s brows steeply arched like the perfect vaults in a medieval church abbey. “He’s under the impression that you have agreed to marry him.” Will couldn’t help but smile like a fool—a fool in love, and he was glad for it. “My parents are delighted with our match.” The pulse in Avalon’s neck visibly pounded, and she swallowed slightly. “He’s mistaken, Father.” Will took a step toward her, but with a raised hand, she halted him in his steps. “Lord William, I’m to marry the Marquess of Warwyk in three days.” Her voice trembled ever so slightly. “My family and I will travel to his ancestral seat tomorrow.

” “Avalon—” Will wanted to curse when his voice cracked. “What are you talking about?” He blinked twice, hoping this was a bad dream he’d soon awaken from. “Avalon?” She bowed her head. When she finally met his gaze, her eyes glistened with emotion. “My responsibility is to my family. I made a match with Lord Warwyk.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I don’t have the luxury of marrying a second son of a duke instead of a wealthy marquess.” Unable to speak, Will stood frozen in the middle of the room. “I’m sorry.

If you’ll excuse me, I must finish packing.” Without another word, she silently left the room. Everything came to a dead stop. Will’s chest refused to expand, his breathing stopped, and his heartbeat stumbled. How could he have misjudged her intentions—even her character? A deafening silence descended, only broken when Will managed to speak. “There must be some mistake. I’ve never even heard a mention at White’s about such a match.” The last visits he’d made to his gentleman’s club flooded his thoughts. There was no mention of Avalon or even Warwyk in any of the conversations—not even a single rumor—nor were there any wagers in the betting books. “Warwyk asked for her hand last March.

Her mother has been planning the wedding for weeks.” The earl stood and walked to a sideboard with various bottles of brandy, whisky, and other spirits. He poured a fingerful and downed it. Then he filled a second fingerful into his glass along with one for Will. The earl returned to the settee opposite Will and extended the glass. Without a word, Will shook his head, refusing the drink. He’d kissed Avalon last Saturday in the silver pantry at Lady Wheaton’s house. He couldn’t have mistaken the desire in her eyes for something else. She’d said repeatedly she couldn’t wait for the day they’d be together. That night, she’d demanded they do more than kiss, but Will had refused.

He’s said he wouldn’t dishonor her that way. He’d gently explained he wanted to make love with her more than anything else, but as an honorable man, he couldn’t. They would wait until the night they consummated their marriage. What a bloody fool he was for thinking she actually cared for him. He was worse than a fool. He had allowed a woman to gull him into making a proposal, and he’d stupidly fallen in love with her. Hot tears burned his eyes. He placed his elbows on his knees and rested his forehead in his hands. What was supposed to be the happiest day of his life had turned into a nightmare. Will’s heart broke like a crack in a piece of ice when subjected to increasing pressure.

Every second that passed magnified his pain. Finally, the hurt became almost unbearable. The shock that Ava had jilted him made him numb. Slowly, pain leeched the numbness. He stole a peek at the earl. Lord Calderton met his gaze. The pity in the earl’s eyes forced Will to his feet. He’d not crumble in front of Ava’s father. “I must beg your leave, my lord.” “Of course.

” The earl stood and escorted Will to the door. Will dug deep inside for words—anything so he could escape. “Let’s keep this between us, shall we?” The earl swiftly shook his head as if coming out of a daze. “I beg you not to disparage Avalon. It would hurt you as much as her if our people”—the earl waved a hand between the two of them as if they were of equal stature—“if the ton heard of this. They would tear her to shreds. I have to think of Sophia, Avalon’s little sister. You understand, don’t you?” Will straightened his shoulders and stared directly into the earl’s eyes. “What I understand is that Avalon jilted me. But never fear, I won’t hurt her.

” The earl visibly relaxed. “Nor will I ever acknowledge her again.” Will’s crisp words echoed throughout the room. Not waiting for the earl’s response, Will exited the room. With every ounce of strength he possessed, he donned a mask of indifference. With his head held high, he counted the steps down the hallway to the entry where the front door offered an escape. All the while he discarded all the memories, hopes, and dreams of marrying for love that he’d crafted over the past several months. Once outside, he took a deep breath, hoping to cleanse the disappointment and the embarrassment that now colored every thought. The crack within his heart finally broke open, crumbling into pieces that allowed his hurt and disappointment to bleed freely. Right then and there, he vowed not to let Avalon’s jilting define him.

He’d learned a valuable lesson—never trust love again—and never allow his heart to be vulnerable to the wiles of a heartbreaker. His entire focus would be devoted to himself and his work. As if commiserating with him, the sky over London had turned gray with dark, menacing clouds. The smell of rain permeated the air. A shower wouldn’t cleanse any of the rot that now stained his soul nor would it soothe the ragged and torn chunks of his heart. But it would baptize his vow.

.

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