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Perfectly marvelous...
Devon St. James must surely be dreaming!  She closes her eyes in London’s poorest slum, and awakens wrapped in fine linens…staring into the eyes of the most gorgeous man she has ever seen! Sebastian Sterling, Marquess of Thurston, is clearly shocked to have a girl from the streets in his bed, though the heat of the desire burning in his gaze is unmistakable.  But if he believes Devon will easily submit, he is quite mistaken!

What the devil has he done?
It’s bad enough their family is already mired in scandal, now Sebastian has to deal with the exquisite young beauty in rags he had impetuously carried into his home! Worse still, the lady is driving the serious, responsible marquess to distraction with her fiery spirit and breathtaking sensuality.  But perhaps, just perhaps, with some of Sebastian’s private schooling, this low-born enchantress can learn refinement and manners – and be miraculously transformed from merely his passionate obsession into… A Perfect Bride

A Perfect Bride

 

AUGUST 2004
Avon Books
· ISBN 0-060-00661-7


A Perfect Bride

Don't forget to check out the alternate opening chapter from A Perfect Bride.

Considering that my last three books were medievals, you may be wondering why the next three are Regency-era historicals. As much as I adore the world of castles and keeps, damsels and conquerors, there's something utterly irresistible about the world of rakes and rogues, dowagers and debutantes; thus my reason for fast-forwarding to Regency England.

I love doing books about characters with dark, tortured pasts. The ultimate reward for these characters is the happily ever after ending—I think it makes their journey all the more precious. I decided to craft a story about three siblings, the Sterlings. They are bound not only by blood, but by their love and devotion to each other. They are all different, each very individual.

The eldest is Sebastian, the staunch one. The protector, strong and responsible, ever steadfast. Next is Justin, the rebel, the wild one whose devil-may-care view of the world masks a secret unknown to anyone. Last is Julianna, the nurturer. As adults, each has a lesson to learn.

The hero of Book One, A Perfect Bride, is Sebastian Sterling, a man in search of a bride. He's not so very different than his knightly predecessors, you see. A man of honor and integrity, Sebastian will never forsake his duty to his name and title. But alas, I couldn't resist giving Sebastian the chance to rescue a damsel in distress (I guess you can tell my last few books were medievals!). But Sebastian must learn that life and love can not be planned--it will come where and when it will, and he cannot stop it.A Perfect Bride

But I also had a lot of fun with this book, too. I had a blast coming up with a quirky, funny name for the pooch in this book!

My original title was Ever A Lady. A Perfect Bride is the first book in the Sterling family trilogy which continues with A Perfect Groom and A Perfect Hero.

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IT'S A BESTSELLER! (posted 8.05.03)

A Perfect Bride hits lists! The first in Samantha's Sterling trilogy debuted at
#34 on the New York Times Bestseller list
#58 on the USAToday Bestseller list
#10 on Waldenbooks mass market paperback Bestseller list
#5 on Waldenbooks romance bestsellers Bestseller list

A Perfect Bride receives TOP PICK status! Four and a half stars!

"Humor, merging perfectly with poignancy and sensuality are hallmarks of James' exquisite writing, and are here in abundance. You'll adore the fiery, spirited Devon and the staid, honorable Sabastian while thrilling to the love that blossoms between them. A Perfect Bride is simply a perfect book for a late-summer's read!"

--Kathe Robin
Romantic Times BOOKclub
(posted 7.27.04)

Read more about Samantha in Romantic Times BOOKclub

(August 2004 issue)

Click here or on small image at right to see it larger. Click here to download a PDF.

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A Perfect BrideDamn his brother's foolhardy nature!

The Sterling family carriage careened around the corner onto St. Martin's Lane, a grand affair of shining black and gleaming silver. To any onlookers, the splendidly sumptuous vehicle was sorely out of place in the filthy streets of St. Giles. Inside the vehicle, Sebastian Sterling held on tightly, both to the strap and to his temper--it was rare he ever truly lost his temper--but admittedly, the edges were a bit frayed.

True, he'd spent a very pleasant evening at the Farthingale's dinner party--a lively affair, to be sure, for it had lasted until well after midnight. Justin had been invited as well but had chosen not to attend, it seemed. Indeed, it was Stokes, the butler, who had informed Sebastian upon leaving his townhouse that Justin planned to spend the night gaming.

So it was that Sebastian had stopped at White's after leaving the Farthingales. Though they lived beneath the same roof, it seemed they only encountered one another in passing these days. After all, his sister Julianna was traveling. There was no one home but the servants, who were certainly all abed by now; perhaps he and Justin might share a brandy together. Besides, it was only right to apprise his brother of his marriage plans before Justin read about it in tomorrow's gossips...

But Justin was not at White's. His friend Gideon, however, was. And it was Gideon, deep in his cups--God, was he ever anything but deep in his cups?--who disclosed he'd seen Justin but a short time earlier . . .

At a gaming hell in St. Giles.

And it was that which accounted for the carriage's breakneck pace...

Outside, Sebastian could hear Jimmy, his driver, urging the horses on. Damn Justin's recklessness! he thought again. By God, but there were times he swore his brother cared about nothing, not any one or any thing . What the blazes was Justin thinking, to come to such a place? Ah, he reflected furiously, but that was Justin. His life consisted of but three pursuits--gambling, whoring and drinking. As for Gideon... well, they were rakehells, both of them, and he wasn't sure who was the worst!

Under other circumstances, Sebastian wouldn't have dared stray into the heart of St. Giles, for it was surely the very scourge of the earth, rife with pickpockets, thieves... and worse. It seemed a man could scarcely walk down any street in London these days without risk of being robbed. But in an area such as this, a man risked losing not only his watch, but his very life ...

His jaw clamped together hard. Little wonder that he preferred Thurston Hall to London.

The carriage veered precariously. As Jimmy negotiated the turn, Sebastian shifted to accommodate the movement. Yet in the very next instant, the carriage swerved abruptly and lurched to a halt. Sebastian found himself flung across the seat so violently he narrowly escaped cracking his head.

He righted himself and flung open the door. "Jimmy! Is this it?"

Jimmy hadn't moved from his perch atop the cab. "No, my lord," he said with a shake of his head.

"Then drive on, man!" Sebastian couldn't curb his impatience.

Jimmy pointed a finger. "My lord, there be a body in the street!"

No doubt whoever it was had had too much to drink. Sebastian very nearly advised his man to simply move it and drive on.

But something stopped him. His gaze narrowed. Perhaps it was the way the "body", as Jimmy called it, lay sprawled against the uneven brick, beneath the folds of the cloak that all but enshrouded what looked to be a surprisingly small form. His booted heels rapped sharply on the brick as he leapt down and strode forward with purposeful steps. Jimmy remained where he was in the seat, looking around with wary eyes, as if he feared they would be set upon by thieves and minions at any moment.

Hardly an unlikely possibility, Sebastian conceded silently.

Sebastian crouched down beside her, his mind working. She was filthy and bedraggled. A whore who'd imbibed too heavily? Or perhaps a trick, a ruse to bring him in close, then snatch his pocketbook.

Guardedly, he shook her, drawing his hand back quickly. Damn. He'd left his gloves on the seat in the carriage. Ah, well, too late now.

"Mistress!" he said loudly. "Mistress, wake up!"

She remained motionless.

An odd sensation washed over him. His wariness vanished. His gaze slid sharply to his hand. The tips of his fingers were wet, but it was not the wetness of rain, he realized. This was dark and sticky and thick.

He inhaled sharply. "Christ!" he swore. He moved without conscious volition, swiftly easing her to her side so he could see her. "Mistress," he said urgently, "can you hear me?"

She moved a little, groaning as she raised her head. Sebastian's heart leaped. She was groggy but alive!

Between the darkness and the ridiculously oversized covering he supposed must pass for a bonnet, he couldn't see much of her face. Yet he knew the precise moment awareness set in. When her eyes opened and she spied him bending over her, she cringed and gave a great start. "Don't move," he said quickly. "Don't be frightened."

Her lips parted. Her eyes moved over his features in what seemed a never-ending moment. Then she gave a tiny shake of her head. "You're lost," she whispered, sounding almost mournful, "aren't you?"

Sebastian blinked. He didn't know quite what he'd expected her to say. Certainly it was not that .

"Of course I'm not lost."

"Then I must be dreaming." To his utter shock, a small hand came out to touch the center of his lip. "Because no man in the world could possibly be as handsome as you."

An unlikely smile curled his mouth. "You haven't seen my brother," he started to say. He didn't finish, however. All at once the girl's eyes fluttered shut. Sebastian caught her head before it hit the uneven brick. In the next instant, he surged to his feet and whirled, the girl in his arms.

A Perfect Bride"Jimmy!" he bellowed.

But Jimmy had already ascertained his needs. "Here, my lord." The steps were down, the carriage door wide open.

Sebastian clambered inside, laying the girl on the seat. Jimmy peered within. "Where to, my lord?"

Sebastian glanced down at the girl's still figure. Christ, she needed a physician. But there was hardly time to scour the city in search of one...

"Home," he ordered grimly. "And hurry, Jimmy."

It wasn't Stokes, but Justin who opened the door to Sebastian's fashionable townhouse. "Well, well," Justin drawled, "keeping rather late hours, aren't we?" He broke off at the sight of his brother. In his arms was a woman, but hardly the sort his brother usually fancied. Hardly the sort he fancied for that matter.

Her wet, billowing cloak dripped puddles on the highly polished floor. Her head lolled over Sebastian's arm. Her face was turned into his greatcoat.

He raised incredulous eyes to his brother. "Sebastian! What the hell--"

"She's hurt, Justin. Bleeding."

"Good God! Shot?"

"I don't know." Sebastian's tone was clipped and abrupt. "Let's get her upstairs. The yellow room."

In unison the brothers gained the stairs, cleared the landing, and proceeded down the hall, their long-legged strides in perfect accord.

"What the hell happened?"

"I found her sprawled in the street in St. Giles. Jimmy nearly hit her."

"St. Giles! You?" Justin thrust open the bedroom door.

Sebastian spared him a hard look as he brushed by him. "Yes."

By then the butler had appeared, scratching his chest and still dressed in his night clothes. "My lord, may I be of assistance?"

"Hot water and clean strips of linen," Sebastian ordered. "And please hurry, Stokes."

He lowered his burden to the bed and turned his attention to her. She was soaked and shivering and white as snow. It hadn't taken long to reach his townhouse--a scant quarter-hour--but she hadn't roused again, which worried him.

Particularly when he realized she was heavy with child.

"We've got to find out where she's bleeding." He ripped off the silly bonnet she wore. A cascade of golden waves tumbled over the pillow across his fingers.

He flicked the tresses aside and leaned over her. His patrician nose wrinkled in distaste as he fumbled with the sodden, knotted ties of her cloak. Dingy with age, it was the same muddy color as the Thames. "Christ, what is that stench?" He sniffed. "She smells of fish and smoke--"

"Mmmm," Justin agreed. "And stale ale and grease. A noxious blend, isn't it?"

Sebastian cursed at the clumsiness of his big fingers. At last the ties came undone and he eased the cloak from beneath her, thrusting it to the floor.

"Be careful," Justin warned. "She's rather... she appears to be in a delicate condition."

"Yes." Sebastian's gaze roamed quickly over her. She must surely be almost ready to deliver, given the enormous size of her belly, especially considering the narrow frame of her shoulders. He frowned. Yet there was something rather peculiar about her shape... Now that her cloak was off, it struck him that her belly looked almost...

Lumpy.

Suspicion took root. A prod from a finger revealed her belly to be as soft as it looked. His lips compressed. His hands delved beneath her ragged scrap of gown.

Justin stood just behind his shoulder, watching as a slow curl of twine dropped from his fingers to the sodden cloak now pooled on the elegantly patterned Aubusson carpet. A pillow followed in short order.

"Good heavens." Justin sounded utterly shocked. "She's not--"

"Apparently not."

There was a long, drawn-out pause before he heard Justin's voice. "Why the deuce would a woman pretend to be with child?"

Sebastian made a sound of disgust. "It's a ruse. My guess is that the twine and the pillow are used to conceal her stash."

"Her stash," Justin repeated.

"She's a thief, Justin."

"But she has nothing concealed!"

"Doesn't she?" He spied something in one of her hands, clenched beneath her chin.

He tried to loosen her grip.

Her fingers tightened. "Mine," she muttered. "Mine!"

A Perfect BrideTugging, he freed a chain clamped tight in her palm. He spared it no glance, but dumped it into his pocket with an oath. "My God," he muttered, "I've brought home a thief!"

"Oh, come," Justin protested. "You could hardly leave her laying in the streets. She might have been trampled. If it's any consolation, I'd have done the same thing myself."

"What, you've sprouted a conscience now?"

"Who knows? Perhaps I'll even follow in your path and lead a life of utter respectability--though I cannot imagine anything more boring!"

Those acquainted with the pair were aware such banter was commonplace. As they spoke, Sebastian was busy peeling away the rest of her gown.

As it joined the growing pile on the carpet, Justin inhaled. "Look there. She hasn't been shot, she's been stabbed!"

Sebastian saw at the same instant. His gaze settled on a jagged puncture that seared the flesh of her right side. If she was lucky, perhaps the blade had glanced off a rib. If so, the injury would not be mortal and the bleeding would stop soon.

Stokes had quietly deposited a tray of linens and water at the bedside. Sebastian grabbed a wad of linen and pushed her to her side, one hand on her shoulder. Before long, a telltale crimson began to seep through the pad. He swore and increased the pressure.

Beneath his hands, the girl twisted. Slim shoulders heaved and she cried out, a sound that resounded within his very bones... his very hands. Her head turned and he saw her eyes were open; she stared directly into his face. They were pleading, those eyes. Alight with a glimmer of gold--most unusual, he noted distantly--a glimmer of life.

His efforts paid off. It wasn't long before the bleeding began to slow. With Justin's assistance, he pressed a thick, clean pad over the wound, then wound several strips of linen over the dressing and around her body to secure it in place.

Only then did he allow himself to breathe. With a tail of cloth, he gently wiped the grime from her cheeks.

"She's frightfully pale," observed Justin.

"I know." Sebastian had already taken note of her ashen color--and the rest of her as well. Her frame was delicate, her limbs petite and slender, much like their sister Julianna. "Christ, I knew I should have taken her to a physician." He spoke, almost to himself.

"And where would you have found one this time of night?" Justin dropped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "Besides, I'd trust you far more than I would any physician." His tone lightened. "My brother the hero, tending the wounded on the battlefield. I daresay, you've far more experience with such things than many physicians."

Sebastian neither agreed nor disagreed. He had been proud to serve his country in the fight against Napoleon, but upon his return to England, he was only too glad to relegate his war memories to a far distant place where he need not think of them ever again. Certainly he never dreamed his skills might be needed again--and in his own home yet!

Carefully he eased his patient to her back.

Complete and utter silence ensued. Perhaps both men were a little taken aback. Perhaps they'd been too engrossed in the commotion to truly take notice of her. But now both he and Justin stared as if spellbound. Neither could help it. Neither could ignore it.

Leave it to Justin to speak the unspeakable. "Well, well, well," he whispered. "Do you know that pale coral rose in the garden at Thurston Hall? Julianna adores it, remember? Sunrise, I believe it's called..." Another second of silence. "Her nipples," he finished softly, "are just like that rose."

Sebastian yanked the sheet over her breasts. "Justin! For pity's sake, she's ill!"

"And I am not blind. Nor, I daresay, are you."

He leveled an admonishing frown upon Justin. "If possible, I should like to tend her without benefit of your lecherous insight."

"Meaning you wish me to leave?"

"I do," Sebastian said sternly. "But send Stokes back in with more hot water. Soap, too. And have Tansy fetch one of Julianna's night rails."

"As you say, my lord. But since I'm being banished, I should like to offer a word of advice."

Sebastian glanced up inquiringly.

"Perhaps we should have Stokes stow away the valuables," Justin stated mildly. "Indeed, perhaps we should lock our doors. We've a woman of the streets in the house, you know. She may well rob us blind and murder us in our beds by morning."

Sebastian glowered. Justin merely laughed and closed the door.

Sebastian bent over his patient once more. Clearly Justin considered the situation quite humorous. Damn it all! He needed no reminders that he'd brought a thief into his home... sweet Lord, his home !

He was still having trouble believing it himself.

It was the shiver of a presence that woke Devon. The unfamiliar cadence of a voice... A man's voice, deep and cultured and melodious. Searchingly Devon turned her head toward the sound. Her body shifted.

"Easy, now," said the voice. "You've been hurt."

Hurt, her mind echoed vaguely. A strange stillness seemed to drift in her head, abruptly snared by memory. A shudder tore through her. She saw Harry and Freddie, circling like vultures. She remembered falling, hurtling into a black void where there was nothing but cold, seeping through, clear to her very bones... she'd been cold before, but not like that. Never like that! And there had been the terrifying fear that no one would hear. That she would lay there and die, like Mama, in the cold and the dark...

But she wasn't cold now, she realized. There was a dull ache in her side, but she was cocooned in softness and warmth as never before.

And someone sat close. Very close.

A Perfect BrideWith that awareness, Devon struggled to bring the image into focus. A man sat beside her, so near she could have reached out and touched his sleeve. Even sitting down, he was astonishingly large, his shoulders surely as wide as the Thames. Behind him, standing across the room, was another man, whose rich, dark hair was but a shade lighter.

Devon scarcely gave the other man a second consideration. No, it was the man beside her who captured and commanded her attention and made her breath slip away. She remembered now. She remembered waking and seeing him ... the jolt of fear that passed through her at finding this huge man crouched over her.

It wasn't just his size that radiated power. It was more, far more, for his was a presence that could hardly go unnoticed, not by her, or anyone else, she suspected!

His clothing was sheer elegance. Not a single wrinkle marred the fabric of his coat. Beneath was a royal blue silk waistcoat and fine cambric shirt. His cravat was spotlessly white, almost blindingly so, particularly against the bronze of his skin.

His eyes were sharply, penetratingly gray, set deep beneath craggy black brows and hair of darkest midnight. His jaw was square and cleanly shaven to the skin, totally unlike the bristly, bewhiskered men she was used to encountering. The only hint of softness in his angled, supremely masculine face was a clefted chin.

"Where am I?" The words came out sounding hoarse; she sounded nothing like herself.

"I found you injured in the streets. I brought you here, to my house in Mayfair."

Mayfair. Devon's gaze circled slowly around the chamber. She stared. Somehow she couldn't stop herself. Draperies of yellow silk hung at the window, tied with a silver cord. The walls were papered and patterned in roses. She was lying in a bed the size of which she'd never imagined, so soft she felt as if she were floating on a cloud. In truth, but for the fiery ache in her side, she might have been in a dreamworld.

His speech was clipped and precise, like her mother's. "You are a gentleman." She spoke unthinkingly. "And this house... it's so grand! 'Tis what I imagined some fine lord's might be like."

The merest hint of a smile graced his chiseled lips.

Devon blinked. "Are you a lord?"

He gave a half-bow. "Sebastian Sterling, Marquess of Thurston, at your service."

Devon was dumbfounded. By Jove, a marquess!

"Miss." The other gentleman gave a slight nod. His gaze didn't possess the piercing sharpness of the marquess, but he watched her closely.

"What about you?" asked the marquess. "Have you a name?"

She swallowed. "Devon. Devon St. James."

"Well, Miss St. James, now that you're a guest in my home, perhaps you'd care to tell me of the night's... activities."

There was a masked coolness in his regard. Only then did Devon perceive it. As she did, her memories sharpened. With unremitting clarity, she remembered the feel of Freddie's fingers around her neck, cutting off her breath. That, she realized belatedly, was why it felt like needles slashing her throat when she spoke, why she was so hoarse.

Freddie, she thought wildly. She remembered gripping her dagger and thrusting it forward, the odd sensation of cloth tearing and flesh giving way... how he'd staggered away. She nearly cried out. Where was he? What had happened to him?

Her gaze lifted. "There was a man," she said unsteadily. "Where is he?"

The marquess shook his head. "When I found you, you were alone."

"But he was there! I tell you he was there!"

"And once again, I must tell you, you were alone. Clearly you did not sustain your injuries yourself. So tell us about this man you were with."

"I wasn't with him. I--"

All at once she broke off. The way he was looking at her...

"Miss St. James? Pray continue."

It was easy to see what he thought of her. He continued to regard her as if she were a maggot, and she was suddenly furious. Why, she was surprised he had brought himself to sit within arm's length of her.

Devon would not hide from what she was. She could not change what she was. She had grown up in the dirty, fetid streets of St. Giles, where she'd learned the hard way that trust was not something to be given lightly.

Marquess or no, she would not allow him to steal her pride from her, for indeed, it was all she had. Besides, she knew his kind. Long before Mama had died, Devon had determined she would not fail, that she would fulfill her promise to find a better life for herself. She'd gone to the great houses of the city, seeking other work. From the time she was very young, Devon had labored. She'd cleaned fish at the docks, swept paths for the gentry as they crossed the street or descended a carriage, and carried slop from the kitchens, for Mama's work as a seamstress was barely enough for food and lodgings.

But there were no positions to be found in the households of the lords and ladies of London, or indeed any reputable establishment, not as maid or cook or kitchen wench. One look at her, and the door was promptly slammed in her face. She did her best to stay presentable, but it wasn't always easy--she'd placed a basin outside the door to catch rainwater in order to bathe, but some wretched soul had stolen it! If she was well scrubbed and rosy-cheeked, perhaps it might have made a difference. And it hadn't helped that she'd outgrown her ragged gown some years ago.

"Miss St. James, why do I have the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"

Her sharp retort died in her throat. Justin's gaze was nearly as sharp as his brother's. She felt herself pale, all at once uneasy. These two were blue-bloods, and blue-bloods had no use for people like her! If she admitted she had stabbed Freddie, what would they do?

She would be hauled off to the authorities with nary a thought.

A Perfect Bride"Miss St. James? Is something wrong?"

Her heart thumped wildly. "Nothing's wrong," she said quickly. It was part-fear, part-defiance that compelled her answer. But suddenly she started.

"My necklace!" Her hand moved frantically on the satin counterpane. "My necklace! Where is it? I cannot lose it. I had it, I know I did--"

"Set your mind at ease. It's in a safe place."

But his expression lent her no ease. "It's mine! I want it back!"

He got to his feet. It skittered through her mind that she was right. On his feet he was a giant. She watched as he walked to the ornately carved marble fireplace, then turned to face her, strong hands linked behind his back. Near the door his brother continued to look on.

"When the rightful owner has been determined," he said with a lift of one brow, "the rightful owner shall have it back."

"The rightful owner... What do you mean?"

His eyes had gone the color of stone. "It means I am not a half-wit, Miss St. James. I do have a very good idea how your injury was sustained, and I'll not be tricked. A quarrel among thieves, for instance--"

"I am not a thief!" she cried. "My purse was stolen!"

"Your purse," he repeated. "Stuffed with your coin, I expect."

"Yes. Yes! There were two men, you see--"

"Oh, so now there were two. And hoodlums, no doubt."

There was an awful, twisting feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"I must give you credit, Miss St. James. You speak far better than I expected."

Her chin climbed high. "My mother was well-spoken."

"And who was your mother?"

"Why, the Queen of England!"

"That would make you a princess. In that case, I commend most highly your penchant for disguise."

Devon followed his gaze across the room. Draped across a high-backed chair near the door was her ragged cloak, her gown... and the pillow she'd stuffed beneath it.

Damn his arrogance! How dare he pass judgment on her!

Like her mother before her, she was different from those who lived and worked in the filthy back-alleys of London. Despite those differences--or perhaps because of them--she had learned to survive. It wasn't that she was meaner or stronger--such a notion was laughable!--or even that she was smarter. But she was wise enough to avoid circumstances which might place her in situations that were less than desirable.

The very reason for such attire. If one must brave the streets each night, it was better done this way. Upon commencing her employment at the Crow's Nest, Devon had considered dressing like a lad, but alas, there was little chance of being mistaken for a lad, not with her breasts and hair constantly tumbling in a wild curtain about her shoulders. At least like this, she didn't look so different from the beggars and thieves. And thankfully, there were few who were wont to look twice at a woman who, as Bridget was fond of saying, appeared ready to deliver the burden in her belly at any moment.

A Perfect Bride"One cannot help but wonder what you were doing about at such a late hour. Out taking the air, perhaps?"

She stared at him. There was no mistaking his meaning. "Not only do you think I am a thief, you think I am a trollop."

He made no reply, nor was there a need to. It was there in the way those crystalline eyes measured the entire length of her form.

Devon, her ire blazing, dragged the counterpane up to her chin. The urge to do bodily harm was indeed paramount in her mind.

"What did you say your name was?" she asked coolly. "Lord Shyte?"

He stiffened visibly. "I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, do forgive my lapse in memory. It must have been Lord Arse--"

Three strides brought him back across the room and to the bedside. "Watch your tongue, Miss St. James. I'll not have the language of the gutter spoken in my house. But then, I suppose I should expect no less from a woman of the streets."

He stood above her. Tall. Not threatening, but certainly imposing. But Devon was too angry to recant her recklessness. Throughout her life, there had been times she despaired her quick, impetuous nature, but this was not one of them.

"Then perhaps I should leave, sir!"

"Not until you are well." A peremptory command, no less!

Their eyes dueled. "I'll have you know my father was from a family finer than yours!" she spouted. "And he lived in a house far grander than this one!"

"Ah, yes, with your mother the Queen. Do forgive my lapse in memory. Though indeed, I have the feeling there's much more you could tell me about last night."

"I think not."

"Then perhaps I should return when you're more disposed to converse."

"Perhaps you shouldn't return at all."

"Oh, but I shall. And I promise we shall continue our discussion." But he made no effort to depart, remaining at the bedside, regarding her in that assessing manner she already disliked.

She plucked at the soft folds of the gown she wore. "This is not mine," she muttered.

"No. It belongs to my sister Julianna, who is traveling on the Continent. If she were here, she would be the one to nurse you, and not I. She's always been one to tend poor animals and such."

Devon gritted her teeth. "I am not an animal."

"I apologize. It was a poor choice of words."

He didn't sound very apologetic. Devon glared. "I suppose it was you who put me in this night rail as well."

"I did indeed."

Heat flooded her face. "I thought you said you were a marquess!"

"I am."

"Then have you no servants?" Her shock had turned to outrage. "Why, I'm surprised you deigned to lay a finger on someone so obviously inferior!"

His smile held little mirth. "Oh, it would take a good deal more to put me off. So, as I said, think of me as your nurse, Miss St. James, and rest assured I shall endeavor your recovery is a speedy one. And," he added smoothly when he saw her gaping, "if you're going to ask why we didn't summon a physician... well, I daresay a physician would have asked more questions than you appear willing to answer."

Devon checked her biting retort. He was right, she should mind her tongue. Mama had often chided her for not guarding it more closely. She resented his arrogance and overbearing manner, but there was little she could do about her fate right now. She reminded herself she was warm and dry--and far away from Harry and Freddie.

He shifted, suddenly so close she could smell the starch of his shirt. She tried to recoil from his nearness, but there was nowhere to go. His fingertips slid over the delicate skin just below her ear, down the side of her neck.

"You've bruises there," he observed grimly.

Devon said nothing. She tried to read the thoughts behind the depths of his eyes, but she could not peer within, any more than she could have peered down the darkest alley on a moonless night.

"Would you care to tell me how you came by them?"

A Perfect BrideThe burning in her side was suddenly intense and throbbing, but it was like nothing compared to the ache in her breast. Black despair slipped over her heart. What was the use? His kind would never believe her.

"No," she muttered.

"Are you in pain?"

Though his expression was intent, the harshness was gone from his voice. Devon refused to be lured. Mutely she shook her head.

He persisted. "Perhaps some laudanum--"

"What, to coax me into talking?"

Silence. "No," he said finally. "It will help you rest."

"I shall be fine." She pressed her lips together, horrified to discover that tears lurked but a heartbeat away. She was determined not to reveal how close she was to breaking down, but if he stayed any longer, she wasn't sure she could stop them.

She averted her gaze. "If you don't mind, I'd like to be alone now."

From the corner of her eye, she saw his brother's shadow shift toward the door, but the marquess had yet to move. She could feel his gaze boring into her.

"You must be hungry. I'll send someone up with food."

"Fine," she muttered, "as long as it isn't you."

"Given your present state, Miss St. James, I shall pretend I didn't hear that." He gave a slight bow. "In the meantime, I shall look forward to our next meeting."

Devon, on the other hand, most certainly did not.

 


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