Tall, Dark & Wicked – Kathleen Ayers

Lady Petra Grantly observed the room of people gathered for the marriage of her brother, Rowan, to Lady Arabella Tremaine. The gathering was small and intimate, with only family and close friends in attendance. Her parents, Lord and Lady Marsh, had been pressuring Rowan to marry for years. Today should have been a happy one. Alas, it was not. At least not for Lady Marsh. Mother wept and clung to Father’s hand as if the greatest of tragedies had befallen the Earl of Marsh and his countess. Petra supposed in Mother’s eyes, it had. Last night, Mother’s sobs had echoed down the hallway like the wailing of an Irish banshee. She’d declined breakfast this morning, declaring herself too distraught to eat. As the vicar began the ceremony uniting Rowan and Arabella, Father had to hush her by pressing a handkerchief to her lips. Arabella was not her mother’s choice of wife for Rowan. The Duke of Dunbar, brother of the bride, and also related to Lord and Lady Marsh by marriage to Petra’s cousin, watched Rowan take hold of Arabella’s hand, shock clearly stamped on his rough-hewn features. His mismatched eyes, one azure blue and the other brown, stared in rapt attention at the bride and groom, clearly fascinated by the proceedings. Perhaps the duke thought he was dreaming for he certainly hadn’t thought someone as sour as Arabella to ever wed.

He wasn’t alone in his assessment. No one in London had believed any man would ever marry the Duke of Dunbar’s sister, especially not a gentleman of Rowan’s charm, intelligence and good looks. How the pair ended up at an inn together with Arabella in a state best described as disheveled, had London guessing. The duke had made up a clever story to entertain the ton. Petra believed none of it. The ton hardly seemed to believe the story either; wonder over how exactly the Duke of Dunbar coerced Rowan, for certainly Rowan wasn’t marrying Arabella of his own accord, was thick in the gossip circles. According to the betting books at White’s, of which Petra was supposed to know nothing, odds were Rowan would flee to the Continent before reciting his vows. She expected several gentlemen would lose their wagers today when the news reached their ears that Rowan and Arabella had indeed wed. The duke’s wife, Petra’s cousin, Jemma, still and brittle, watched the proceedings with pained resignation. It was common knowledge the duchess had no love for her sister-inlaw.

Petra thought the duke’s home to be fraught with tension due to the animosity between the two women. She imagined the hurling of insults and biscuits as the two women fought for control, the stoic duke caught in the middle. She did not envy His Grace. Petra’s own feelings about her new sister-in-law vacillated between fear and dislike. Arabella had never been nice to Petra, though to be fair, Arabella was rarely nice to anyone. Petra kept her distance, avoiding Arabella as much as she could. Of course, now it would be impossible to steer clear of the woman. Holidays were bound to be awkward. Her brother stood tall and handsome, his voice resonating with some undefined emotion as he spoke his vows without a hint of hesitation. Regardless of what her parents or anyone in London thought, Rowan wanted to marry Arabella.

The desire for his new wife was evident in the warmth of his eyes and the longing for Arabella etched across his face. Well, there’s no accounting for taste, Petra mused. Her brother did like a challenge. But Petra sensed there was more to Rowan’s feelings for Arabella. He’d hovered protectively over her as the guests had filled her parents’ home to witness the wedding, his fingers curling around her elbow as family and friends were greeted. Arabella, for her part, watched Rowan with a possessive glow in her dark eyes until he looked in her direction. Even Petra, as innocent as she was, saw the simmering hunger the pair seemed to have for each other. She found all of it very interesting. The vows finished, her mother’s wailing finally subsided into pained sniffles. Petra sat back in her chair, carefully folding her hands into her lap as she’d been taught to do since the age of six.

Her expression was perfectly smooth, her back straight as a pike, awaiting the vicar to end the ceremony. A prickling sensation ran up the base of her neck. Pretending to smooth the pale green of her gown, Petra lowered her eyes and discreetly snuck a glance at the right side of the room. She was not unaccustomed to appreciation from gentlemen, but she’d not thought to garner his interest. Eyes the color of sapphires were focused rather intently on her bosom. An interesting development to be sure, since Petra’s bosom was not large and her neckline incredibly modest. She straightened again, resisting the urge to fan herself. The room had grown warm and a window needed to be opened. She could barely hear the vicar over the loud thumping of her heart. The Earl of Morwick uttered a soft, barely discernable chuckle, not in the least put off at being caught ogling her bosom.

Though she could not see his face, she imagined he smiled at her discomfort; it was hardly a surprise, for he had struck her upon their initial meeting as a bit forward. Upon being introduced, his eyes, the most startling shade of indigo ringed by lighter blue and shot through with gold flecks, had run down her form without regard for politeness. He’d held her fingers a trifle longer than necessary. Even now she could still feel the press of his lips against her knuckles. Incredibly forward. His manner was to be expected; Lord Morwick was cousin to Arabella. Petra pushed aside thoughts of Lord Morwick and forced her attention to the vicar as he recited some platitude about the institution of marriage. How horrified Mother would be at Lord Morwick’s impolite interest in her daughter. Petra knew little about him, only what her brother had told her. He was the youngest son of the thrice-widowed Lady Cupps-Foster, Arabella’s aunt.

He rarely ventured to London, preferring to stay a recluse in the wilds of the Peak District in Derbyshire. He had studied at Oxford or Cambridge, she wasn’t sure which, and was thrown out due to his propensity for brawling. Some of the ton gossiped he was actually the product of Lady Cupps-Foster and a gypsy lover, but Petra didn’t believe a word of it. Petra dared another look at him. Morwick was also dreadfully handsome. If one preferred tall, dark men with broad shoulders and piercing blue eyes. Despite her initial dislike, Petra found him fascinating. He reminded her of an exotic animal forced into the confines of her parents’ town house, only waiting for the proper moment to burst free and attack. Morwick appeared ill at ease in his expensively tailored clothes. He tugged absently at the neck of his shirt and rolled his broad shoulders, stretching the dark blue superfine of his coat until the seams looked as if they would pop.

The chair on which he sat was dwarfed by his large form, creaking with protest at the slightest move. His ebony hair was an unruly mass of curls, far too long and in desperate need of a cut. The dark hair paired with his deeply tanned skin did give Morwick the look of a gypsy. Or maybe a pirate. Petra was so immersed in her thoughts of the Earl of Morwick, she didn’t notice most of the guests had risen and were making their way to the dining room where a wedding feast, carefully prepared by Cook, awaited them. She was startled to find Morwick had been placed next to her at the table. Petra waved over a footman and requested a window be opened. The dining room was nearly as warm as the main drawing room had been. Morwick ignored her, settling himself and immediately signaling for wine. Perhaps he was a sot.

That would be disappointing, but not unexpected given his penchant for fistfights in taverns. Heat emanated from his large body, searing Petra’s arms as if she stood close to a fire. As a well-bred young lady, manners dictated she engage him in conversation. “Are you enjoying your stay in London, Lord Morwick?” Petra ventured, spearing a sliver of thinly sliced potatoes in cream sauce. “Not in the least.” The flecks of gold in his sapphire eyes flared and sparkled at her before he turned away. Well, that was uncommonly rude. “How unfortunate,” she said. “I don’t find it so.” He drained his glass and waved for another.

Good Lord, he is a sot. “If I may make a suggestion, Lord Morwick, the brunch may last several hours.” She pointedly looked at his empty wine glass. Mother would positively have fits if this large, rough man became drunk and disrupted the entire room. A mocking smile crossed his lips. “What would you know of such things? I doubt you’ve ever had anything stronger than tea. May we end this painfully awkward attempt at conversation?” Petra opened her mouth to speak and found she couldn’t think of anything remotely polite to say. She’d never had a gentleman address her in such a way. “Good.” He nodded at her stricken look.

“We are in agreement.” Morwick then turned his attention back to his plate of food. Lord Kilmaire, to his left, said something and the two began speaking in earnest. Mortified at having been cut down during her own brother’s wedding brunch, Petra turned back to her plate. What an absolutely horrible man. After finishing brunch, the ladies all gathered in the large drawing room. The air filled with the laughter of Lady Kilmaire as she teased Arabella. Petra knew the two had been close since they were children. Lady Cupps-Foster, Arabella’s aunt and Lord Morwick’s mother, regaled the room with details of the Duchess of Canfeld’s ball the previous week with the other women all chiming in to comment. By the time Arabella took her arm and brought Petra to the Dowager Marchioness of Cambourne, Petra had nearly put Morwick and his discourteous behavior out of her mind.

She congratulated herself on having maintained a polite demeanor throughout the exchange with the impolite Earl of Morwick, thankful her exposure to him was brief. After nearly a half hour of being peppered with questions by the Dowager Marchioness of Cambourne, who considered herself to be something of a matchmaker, the elderly woman finally sat back and regarded Petra with amusement. “Forgive me for speaking my mind, Petra, but such a thing is the advantage of old age; that, and the benefit of a cane to wield.” She lifted up the head of the cane leaning against her skirts. “You’ve spoken highly of many of your suitors, yet I do not sense an excess of regard for any particular gentleman. I understand your mother favors Lord Dunning.” “Lord Dunning has asked to call on me,” Petra said carefully, not certain where Lady Cambourne’s line of questioning would take her. Her mother favored Dunning, but Petra did not. “Humph.” The older woman’s fingers flitted against the top of her cane.

“I do not think Dunning to be your choice of husband. He’s closer to me in age.” She chuckled. “Mother finds him to be suitable.” Petra had already decided to encourage several other gentlemen she’d met in hope of distracting Mother from Lord Dunning. “A practiced answer.” The older woman leaned forward. “Your life is very wellordered, isn’t it?” She glanced toward Petra’s mother as disapproval colored her words. “With military precision.” “I suppose so, my lady.

” Petra demurred. She’d been cautioned by her mother repeatedly to never offend the Dowager Marchioness of Cambourne. “Would you like to know what I think?” The Dowager’s gloved hand tightened on her cane. “That is a rhetorical question, my girl. For I shall tell you what I think whether you wish it or not. You, Petra,” Lady Cambourne leaned so close Petra could smell the lavender in her hair, “fairly simmer with rebellion.” Petra jerked back in surprise. “I don’t know what you mean, my lady.” “Pish. I am well-versed in playing demure and obedient as I did so myself for many years.

Do not be so quick to allow your mother to make all your decisions. It is your life, after all, not hers.” Lady Cambourne gave her a kindly smile. “Follow where your heart leads, as your brother has.” Petra nodded slowly, confused by the comment. “Forgive me, but—” “I realize my advice is contrary to what society dictates. I assure you,” she said with a laugh. “And I am considered a bastion of propriety. But I like you, Petra Grantly, and would see you happy as your brother is. You remind me a bit of myself, when I was busy being perfect.

” “I—” Petra closed her mouth, uncertain as to what she could say to such a statement. Her entire life had been dictated by her mother. But that was no different from any other young lady of her acquaintance. True, Mother’s rules had begun to chafe at Petra, and there were times when Petra could feel her ladylike decorum begin to slip before she steadfastly pushed it back into place. Thankfully, Mother had been too busy agonizing over Rowan’s choice of wife to pay too much attention to Petra as of late. Petra had stretched her wings, so to speak, and taken note that all marriages need not be passionless. Incredibly, an image of Morwick flitted through her mind. Her nose wrinkled as she pushed such a thought aside. Surely not. “So there is someone.

” Lady Cambourne murmured. Petra composed herself. “No, there’s—” “My lady,” Mother said from behind Petra, “might I borrow my daughter for a moment?” Lady Cambourne glanced up at her mother. “Of course, Lady Marsh. Petra and I have had a wonderful chat. I commend you on raising such a lovely young woman. She is a true credit to you and Lord Marsh.” “Thank you.” Mother gushed at Lady Cambourne’s praise. Petra stood and dipped politely to the Dowager.

As she lifted her head, the older woman winked at her and Petra smiled back. “Whatever were you discussing with Lady Cambourne?” Mother sniffed at Petra suspiciously as the feather in her headdress quivered in accusation. “Nothing at all. She wished to know about my Season and the various gentlemen I’d met,” Petra said smoothly. “I believe she has a match in mind for me.” The last bit was a lie, but one Mother would immediately latch onto. “Very good, Petra. It doesn’t hurt to have her ear. She’s known to be an excellent matchmaker. I mentioned Lord Dunning to her, but she seems unimpressed by him.

Perhaps he will not be as good for you as I first thought.” Mother’s brow wrinkled as she led Petra toward the door. “Dearest, Lady Cupps-Foster has gone missing. The gentlemen will be joining us soon to bid goodbye to Rowan and,” Mother swallowed, obviously finding it difficult to say the words, “his wife. I would go myself, but I need to shepherd everyone out. I believe she wished to refresh herself but has perhaps become lost.” “Of course, Mother.” Petra clasped her hands, obedient as always, telling herself to ignore the flash of irritation at the request. Mother could have sent one of the servants. Heels clicking smartly on the freshly polished tiles of the hall, Petra headed in the direction of one of the smaller parlors which had been set aside for the ladies’ use.

Passing the library, Petra slowed at the sound of Lady Cupps-Foster speaking to someone. She started to announce herself but then heard the dark rasp of Lord Morwick’s voice. Petra stopped, surprised at the sudden flapping of butterflies in her stomach. Mother’s voice echoed in her mind, instructing Petra to turn around, as ladies did not eavesdrop on private conversations. Petra, careful to step lightly, ignored her mother’s imagined voice and moved closer to the door, which had been left ajar. “Can you not behave for the length of time it takes for your cousin to be married?” Lady Cupps-Foster reprimanded. “Is that why you’ve pulled me aside like an errant youngster?” A masculine snort. “You drank far too much wine at brunch.” “The only way to tolerate my dinner companion.” “Petra is a lovely young woman, and much sought after.

I marked your interest in her. You could stay a week or so more, Brendan. Perhaps call on her.” “Are you joking, Mother? Perfect Petra? She’s yet another empty-headed pea-wit whose only purpose is to land a titled husband. A porcelain doll, lovely but lacking a brain. My boredom in conversing with her was only made palatable by the wine.” Lady Cupps-Foster made a dismissive sound and marched out of the library as Petra sank into one of the alcoves. Of all the unmitigated gall. First ogling her during the ceremony then dismissing her out of hand during the brunch when she tried to be polite. She was still fuming when Morwick walked out of the library.

He paused, clearly sensing her presence, and turned in her direction. Her hands crawled from her sides in an attempt to clasp themselves demurely, as she’d been instructed, and failed. “I thought properly bred ladies didn’t eavesdrop.” Morwick moved closer, leaning against the wall, clearly amused by the mounting rage that must have been visible on her face. He loomed over her, large and intimidating, like an angry bear or some other beast. “What are you going to do? Call me a dreadful cad?” Red flashed before Petra’s eyes, and she had to restrain herself from stamping her foot. Later, she would count the moment as one of the few times she’d ever lost her temper. “I am not a bloody pea-wit, you monster.” Petra had the momentary satisfaction of watching his eyes widen at the anger she threw back at him. “Possibly you are accustomed to dim-witted women as I cannot imagine any young lady with a modicum of intelligence expressing the slightest interest in you.

A gentleman would not comport himself in such a way. I only wish I could have availed myself of the wine to blot out your presence. Perhaps become—” The remainder of her diatribe was cut short as Morwick’s mouth fell on hers. He placed his hands, palms flat, on the wall behind her, neatly trapping Petra between his arms. His lips were relentless and hungry, demanding her surrender, ravaging Petra until she felt light-headed. Her hands flew out to grasp the lapel of his coat, holding on for dear life. The kiss deepened, becoming gentle and coaxing until Petra tentatively kissed him back, mimicking the movement of his lips on hers. A growl of satisfaction sounded from the large male holding her captive. “Lady Cupps-Foster.” Mother’s voice sounded from further down the hall.

“Goodness, have you seen Petra? I sent her after you. Where has she gotten off to?” Morwick broke the kiss, eyes burning with blue flame, and took a step back, regarding her with an odd intensity. Petra swallowed, her fingertips flying to touch her swollen lower lip. She moved down the wall until she had put enough distance between herself and Morwick, hurrying toward the sound of her mother’s voice. She’d never been kissed in such a way nor felt such…a stirring within herself. It was as if she’d been out in the snow for hours and was suddenly in front of a hot searing fire. It was unsettling and uncomfortable. And wonderful. Shaken, Petra went to her mother’s side. She dared not look back or lift her eyes as the guests shouted congratulations to the bride and groom, too afraid she’d catch his eyes.

Petra never wished to see the Earl of Morwick again.

.

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