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Dear Readers,

Writing isn't always a linear endeavor. Take this early first chapter for A Perfect Bride (below), for instance. Originally, I had Justin (hero of A Perfect Groom, Book 2) slated to rescue Devon, not Sebastian (hero of A Perfect Bride, book 1). Otherwise, the chapter is largely the same (and never before posted online). Want to see what REALLY happens next (as in what really was printed)? Read the official online excerpt.

Happy Reading,
Samantha

 

 

A Perfect Bride

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




Special Feature! Check out this alternate chapter from A Perfect Bride.

"Ye look like ye're about to pop yer chickadee this very night, mistress! P'rhaps ye'd best have a name picked out for the wee one, eh?"

The laughter-filled observation came as Devon St. James donned the accoutrements she would wear this night before venturing out into the streets.

Eyes of sapphire gleamed like the jewels they so resembled. "Oh, and indeed I do," she murmured demurely. "I've always thought Rupert a fine name. And for a girl, well . . . I believe it shall be Lavinia."

"Rupert? Lavinia?" Angela tried to tame an unruly curl. Her hair was the same color as straw with exactly the same texture. The way she scrunched up her nose revealed her opinion most clearly.

With a melodious laugh, Devon patted the lump of pillow stuffed beneath the folds of her drab gray gown. Over her shoulders was a voluminous cloak that was surely older than she by many a year, a far cry indeed from the fashionable garb worn by the well-heeled ladies of the ton. Dark with age, stained by wear, it was the same muddy color of the Thames near the docks. 'Twas a sad, limp affair, the hem was ratty and uneven, far too large for a frame as small as hers. In places, it nearly touched the ale-spotted, pitted plank flooring of the alehouse where she worked. Indeed, 'twas a most abominable outfit--and without doubt, she was a most abominable sight.

But she was not yet finished.

The tattered bonnet came last. The brim was wide, and helped to shield her face, now smudged with soot to hide the youthful curve of her cheeks and neck. The crown was deep enough that she might stuff the mane of thick, golden tresses that refused to stay up no matter how hard she tried.

Devon had good reason for dressing as she did.

Each night she must make her way through the streets of St. Giles. Deemed among the most unsavory of London neighborhoods, along with the Rookery and Seven Dials, it was no place for a woman, especially at night.

Mama had hated living here.

And yet, but rarely had bleak despair seeped through her voice. When she gazed at her daughter, there abounded the brightness of a love that never dimmed.

For Amelia St. James thought the world of her child.

A sentiment returned in boundless measure by her daughter.

But while the bond between mother and daughter grew ever stronger, little by little, the years of struggle bled all hope from Amelia.

On her deathbed, she made Devon promise she would find a way out of St. Giles.

Amelia St. James had dreamed of a better life for her daughter. And she'd made Devon believe that such things might indeed be possible. She had only to believe with heart and soul.

When Mama died, Devon had determined she would not fail her. She'd gone to the great houses in Grosvenor Square and Mayfair, seeking work. Devon had labored all her life. 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 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 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.

Nor did it help that she'd outgrown her ragged gown some years ago. And alas, her mane of hair was so heavy it forever tumbled down her back like a hoyden's! Nor was there hope of finding work as a seamstress, as her mother had sometimes done. She had not her mother's natural talent with the needle--and she'd lacked the patience to properly learn.

A trait, Mama had once revealed in frustration, Devon had inherited from her father.

So it was that the only employment she could find was here at the Crow's Nest, scrubbing floors, hauling buckets, trudging to the kitchens and back with trays laden with ale and food. It was heavy work, almost bone-jarring work at times, but it was not the work she minded.

A Perfect BrideIt was the way men looked at her.

She knew she bore a decided resemblance to her mother's fragile blond beauty. Before poverty and hardship had robbed her mother of her youth and vigor, Devon had no doubt Mama had once been a beauty. Her own features were more piquant, her hair brighter--Mama had always said 'twas as if the heavy tresses were lit with the burning glow of a candle flame.

Their eyes did not stop there, and it was that she hated most. She was no taller than Mama had been, as slender in the hips and shoulders, but much fuller in the chest. Oh, if only she could buy a new gown, or a swatch of lace to tuck in the bodice! She'd let out the seams as much as she could; indeed, with every breath she feared the threadbare fabric would give way! Yet still her rounded curves beneath swelled above the neckline.

Until she was sixteen, she'd been scrawny and thin, often taken for a child much younger. She'd been so proud when the little buds had started to finally blossom--was there a girl who didn't long to be a woman? But since she'd begun work here at the Crow's Nest, she'd grown to hate the hungry, wolfish look that came into a man's eyes as they traversed up and down her figure, invariably lingering on her chest. They stared at her breasts. They stared at Angela's. They grabbed and pinched. . .

What was the fascination men harbored for women's breasts? It was a point she pondered with much aggravation. Angela stated blithely that was simply the way men were. During the three months Devon had been here, she'd never grown accustomed to their leers--nor would she!

Oh, yes, the streets of St. Giles could be dirty and mean. It was something she'd learned long ago. Like her mother, she was different from those who lived and worked in the slums. Her mother hadn't allowed her to talk like the other street urchins. She was clean, or reasonably so. Yet despite those differences--or perhaps because of them--Devon had learned to survive in the slums. It wasn't that she was meaner or stronger--why, such a notion was laughable!--or even 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, 'twas better done this way. She 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 about her shoulders. At least, dressed as she was, 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 Angela put it, looked ready to deliver the burden in her belly at any moment.

"Did ye speak with your landlord yet, Devon?"

At Angela's query, Devon's smile slipped. Her eyes darkened. Two days hence, the rent was due on the tiny room in the garret she had shared with Mama. It was a struggle at the best of times, for her purse was forever pinched. And now her landlord, Mr. Phillips, had raised it--and he'd informed her but two days ago! It was an outrageous sum he demanded, for the room was scarcely able to accommodate a narrow bed and stool.

But at least he'd waited until Mama was gone to increase the rent. Sickly and frail as she was, the prospect would have left her mother devastated.

Yet somehow she couldn't find it in her to be grateful. Only this morn, Devon stood up to him bravely. "'Tis robbery," she had argued. "I cannot pay more. I will not pay more. Why, I cannot even stand upright without hitting my head on the rafters."

Thick lips drew back over his teeth. "Ye'll pay, missy," he informed her harshly. "Else you'll find yerself out on the street!"

Devon drew a breath. He'd been drinking. She could smell the gin on his breath. Too late she realized her mistake. Ill-tempered at the best of times, when Phillips had been drinking, he was positively mean. Still, she was already here . . .

"Please," she said clearly. "If you could only wait a week--"

"Wait? I will not. Ye and yer mother with her fine airs, pretending to be a lady . . ." He snorted.

Devon began to heat up inside. "My mother was a lady!"

"Do not take that haughty tone with me, missy. If she was such a lady, what was she doin' livin' in the slums?"

"After I was born, she was never able to find a post as governess." She defended Amelia St. James staunchly.

"No true lady would have had a brat 'anging on 'er skirts." It was obvious Phillips took great pleasure in the observation. "Where was yer father?"

A Perfect Bride"He died before I was born."

Thick lips pursed, as if to consider. "Who did ye say 'e was?"

"I didn't." Her tone was clipped and abrupt.

"And why is that?" Deep within folds of fat, his eyes gleamed. "Could it be ye don't know?"

At her silence, Phillips laughed outright. "Ye're a bastard, Devon St. James.  Ye're no better than the rest of us 'ere in St. Giles."

Devon glared. Mr. Phillips was a scoundrel. A thief. A man on whose character she'd rather not think on. Only when her hand came up from her skirts did she realize her fingers were clenched into a fist. It wouldn't do to whack her landlord squarely in his fleshy jowls--though the urge was almost overwhelming. No, it wouldn't do, though indeed it was no more than what he deserved.

Nor could she hide from the truth. From the time she was very young, Devon had known she was a bastard. Indeed, her father had died before she was born. But by the time she learned he was a man of fine family, she hated him for the pain he'd caused her mother. It mattered not that he'd been a man of fine family . . .

He was hardly a fine man.

And there would be no further arguing with her landlord, not when he held her fate in his hands, Devon decided. Hauling in a deep breath, she tried again. "Mr. Phillips," she began.

"Me mind is made up. And if ye say another word, ye may as well not come back!"

His angry flare left her in no doubt. Without a word, carefully shielding her defeat, Devon turned and departed the parlor. Daily she and Mama had given thanks that there was a roof over their heads. Not a night went by that sleep wasn't blurred with shrieks and shouts from the streets below.

Angela was still waiting. Devon shook her head, her eyes dark. "I have until tomorrow evening to pay it."

"And do ye 'ave it?"

Devon shook her head.

"Your plight might be easier were you to take some of the patrons in the back room now and then," Angela said baldly. "That's what I do when I'm in need of a shilling or two."

The ease with which she advised was telling--Angela scarcely gave a second thought to such activity. But Devon would not make her living on her back . . .

Another promise she'd made her mother.

Angela correctly interpreted her silence. "I only said it might be easier," she said with a shrug. "Not better."

"I know," Devon said quickly. "And I mean no offense, truly. But that way--" she hesitated "--is not my way."

Angela gave her a long, slow look "Ye're a good lass, Devon St. James. Ye don't belong here."

Devon gave her a quick hug. "It's kind of you to say that, but we all do what we must, don't we?"

"Amen to that." Angela nodded. Her gaze lowered to Devon's middle. "Ye're a bit crooked there," she observed dryly.

Devon chuckled. "Oh, my. The wee one does seem to have moved a bit, hasn't he?" Giving a wiggle, she adjusted the pillow tied around her waist. Angela rolled her eyes. Devon gave a wave and opened the door.

 It was quiet outside, as quiet as it could be here in London. Night smothered the rooftops. During the day, horses and carriages jostled for room along the narrow streets. Tradesmen's shouts filled the air, struggling to be heard above the bustle of activity. Her cloak flapped about her ankles as she hurried--not easy given the bulk of her middle. She slipped once, for the cobbles were slick from an earlier shower; the rain had done little to freshen the air, rank with the stale odor of fish and smoke. Quickly she righted herself. Her gaze swept around as she did so, but there was no one about.

Your plight might be easier were you to take some of the patrons in the back room now and then.

Devon was aware that Angela meant well, but she could hardly do as she suggested. Indeed, she thought with a wince of shame, Mama would have hated that her beloved daughter worked as a barmaid. As a child, when she and her mother passed by such a place, her mother's lovely mouth pinched together tightly. She grabbed Devon's hand and hurried past, a disapproving tightness about her lovely mouth.

Once, when she was eight, a man and woman had stumbled out. The man was bewhiskered, his jacket askew. But it was the woman who captured Devon's attention. She stared, for she'd never before seen a woman so scantily clad. Her gown hung from one shoulder. Pendulous, heavy breasts spilled from the drooping neckline of her bodice. Almost directly in their path, the man pushed the woman up against the rough stone wall. His mouth fastened hungrily on laughing lips.

His hands filled greedily with white, fleshy buttocks, clearly visible as he hiked her skirts nearly to her waist.

Devon stared. Mama gasped. "Devon! Direct your eyes to the side," she cried. "Such behavior is not fit for a child to witness."

But such behavior was commonplace in St. Giles.

Mama jerked harder upon her hand. "Devon!" she cried in horror. Shamed, Devon dutifully did as she was told.

To this day, Devon still averted her eyes and pretended not to notice.

Now, she could only hope that Mama would have understood.

Almost without knowing it, her hand stole to the pocket of her gown. Warm fingertips brushed against cool metal. Remembrance flooded through her . . . As Mama breathed her last, Devon slipped the locket from her mother's pocket. It was black and tarnished, but her memories of Mama would never be so. The clasp was broken--the reason Mama carried it in her pocket.

It was Devon who had broken it.

A rending ache seared her breast. Twice in her life she'd made her mother cry. This was one of them--a memory that still provoked a stab of guilt inside. She had no idea of its value, nor did it matter. The locket was Mama's most treasured possession.

Now it was her most treasured possession.

Never would she part with it. Never. No matter what price it would fetch, no matter how hunger gnawed at her belly, no matter if she had to sleep in the rain and the cold. pray God it would not come to that! As long as she had it, she still had a part of her mother.

Pulling up her cloak, Devon skirted a puddle left by the recent rain. On either side of her, the houses huddled together like shivering children in a biting wind. A ragged woman slept in a doorway, bony knees huddled to her scarecrow frame.

Devon bit the softness of her lip. A dry fear touched her spine. I don't want to be like her, she thought desperately. I don't!.

But she was in a dreadful fix. Oh, and to think she'd been so proud of herself! She thought of the precious stash of coins nestled in the left pocket of her gown, all that she strived to save these many weeks--she didn't dare leave it at home lest it be stolen. When her wages came due, she'd been so certain there would be more than enough to cover her rent. She'd thought she might even be able to buy another gown, that perhaps it might aid her in obtaining other employment. But now it would take every penny of her wages . . . and more.

Hopelessness despair dragged at her, but she could not give in. She reminded herself she had her wits, her determination . . . and her mother's locket.

"What 'ave we here? Why, a lady with a fondness for the laddies!"

The voice rang eerily into the night. Devon stopped short. A man blocked her way. Another stepped from the shadows, just to her left.

The fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled . . . and with good reason. She knew this pair--or at least she knew of them. They belonged to one of the most frightening

gangs that roamed St. Giles--if it was true what was said, in all the city! There was Harry, the leader, and Freddie, his dark-haired brother--oh, and vile-looking creatures they were!--both of them, ageless in the soul, their behavior ruled by perhaps the oldest of provocations.

Greed.

Oh, yes, she could see it in their eyes . . . Unless she was mistaken, it was Freddie who had spoken . . . he who now blocked her way. He was smaller than his brother, not so much taller than she.

She flung her head up. By God, she would show no fear.

But feel it she did. The cold breath of terror trickled along her spine. Her breath stumbled in her throat. She willed herself not to panic. Mama had always told her she possessed a sound constitution. She would not scream. Indeed, what good would it do?

Not a soul was about.

Behind a wall of bravado, her chin lifted. "What do you want?"

"Depends on what ye got!" There was a sinister rumble to Freddie's laugh.

Devon swallowed. "I have nothing," she said levelly. "Now leave me be. Or would you prey on an innocent woman?" Oh, a ridiculous question, that! This pair would prey upon any and all! "Can you not see I'm soon to give birth?" She jutted out her stomach so that her girth protruded from the cloak. And it was on her belly that his gaze lingered.

But not in the way she hoped.

"Oh, I can see," Freddie said with a wink. "And we be glad to see ye like the laddies, eh, Harry?"

Harry bowed to her with great flourish. "Indeed, Freddie."

Freddie's narrow lips twisted in a smile. He gave a nod. "What's that ye have there in yer pocket?"

Devon paled. Too late she realized she had done the one thing in the world she should never have done. Her hands plunged protectively into the pockets of her gown. Her mind sprang to the knife tucked away in her boot. Drat, but they were so close! They would be upon her before she could reach it!

She dragged her hands out so they could see.  "Nothing," she said quickly. "Now leave me be!"

"Let's just 'ave a look, shall we?"

Clearly this was a feat with which they were familiar--and quite accomplished. Harry's nimble fingers found the pouch with her precious stash of coins in one pocket. With a hoot Freddie snatched her locket in the other.

By God, they could steal her coin, beat her senseless, but they would not take her locket! The only way she would see it gone was if they left her dead upon the street. Heedless of the danger, she launched herself at Freddie.

"No!" she cried. Harry had already disappeared into the shadowed depths of the alley, but Devon paid no mind. Throwing out a hand, she managed to grab a fistful of Freddie's coat.

It was enough to topple him; they tumbled heavily to the ground. But all at once he had her by the throat. "Bitch!" He squeezed; she could feel the ragged edge of his nails biting into the soft flesh just below her jaw.

She struggled to breathe! A faint, choking sound emerged . . . it bore no resemblance to a scream. She raked at his face, but it was no use. Then she remembered . . .

The knife tucked at the side of her boot.

Freddie squeezed. Devon clawed at him desperately, certain her neck would snap with the pressure of his bony fingers. A grating laughed blackened the air.

The world was darkening. Her fingertips closed about the handle. Gritting her teeth, she drove upward with all her might, then wrenched it back.

Air rushed back into her lungs. Through the meager light she saw Freddie's eyes bulge, as if they would pop from their sockets. Little did she realize the surprise on his face mirrored hers, for it was then she realized the blade had reached its mark.

"Ye . . . ye've killed me!" he said faintly.

Devon waited no longer. With a cry she shoved at his shoulders. Weak, stunned, Devon rolled away. As she pushed herself to her knees, the tip of the blade scraped against the cobblestones. Through a haze she tucked it back in her boot.

It was then she chanced to see her locket, just beyond her knees. With a frantic cry of relief, she A Perfect Bridesnatched it up and clasped it to her breast.

Behind her, there was a groan. Her heart gave a great bound. It was Freddie!

Run! chanted a voice in her mind. You must run!

Too late. She had no way of knowing he'd seized her dagger in his hand. A tremendous force hit her from behind. She pitched forward, skidding headlong across damp, slippery stone. Searing fire burned her side, there near her shoulder blade. A scream shrilled the air . . . her own, she realized.

Through the blackening fog of her vision, she saw Freddie stagger to his feet, shuffling toward the alley where his brother had disappeared.

His shuffling footsteps faded. Her mind hazed. The world seemed to dangle. She tried to rise, but her limbs might have been paralyzed. She began to cry in sheer futility.

But there was no one to hear. Certainly no one to care. For this was St. Giles, the home of beggars and thieves, the poor and the unwanted.

And yet . . .

The clatter of wheels reached her ears, the snort of horses, the squeal of a brake. Indeed, she could feel the hollow vibration of footsteps beneath her ear.

A shadow fell over her. She cringed. A whimper escaped. Was it Freddie come back to finish her off?

"Mistress," came a sharp, imperious voice. "Mistress, can you hear me?"

With a gasp Devon looked up. She struggled to see, then was convinced that her eyes had surely deceived her.

For this was not Freddie, or Harry, but a man who was surely the handsomest man she'd ever seen--and dressed in the finest clothes she'd ever seen . . .

A man most assuredly misplaced here in the slums.

Beyond that thought, there was none.

 

 

The gentleman in the carriage glanced idly out into the night. His lean, clean-shaven face bore an expression of weary boredom. Why he'd ever agreed to spending the evening gambling with Gideon again, he couldn't say. But Gideon had been adamant the stakes were in their favor at this particular club.

It was a hellish place. Bad wine, bad company, and worst of all, bad luck. The crowning glory was that Gideon had the audacity to sneak away with a wench--a surprisingly fetching one at that!--so that he was left to his own devices when it came time to leave. Now, the gentleman wondered if the hack could even find his way to Mayfair Square!

At the thought, a wry smile curled those finely curved lips. Would his elder brother Sebastian have appreciated that he hadn't taken the splendidly sumptuous family coach to such a place? A grand affair of shining black and gleaming silver, the vehicle would surely have turned every head--though perhaps not, the gentleman admitted, at such a late hour as this.

A Perfect BrideThe driver negotiated a turn, and the gentleman shifted, trying to find a comfortable position against the sagging cushions. Yet in the very next instant, the contraption swerved abruptly and lurched to a halt, flinging the passenger within across the seat so violently he narrowly escaped cracking his head.

The gentleman within righted himself, pushed aside the curtains and stuck his head out the window.

"My good man! If you cannot find the way, then kindly find me a man who can."

The driver pointed a finger. "But, s-sir," he stammered, "there be a body in the street!"

A body. Oh, so melodramatic! No doubt whoever it was had too much to drink, perhaps even more than he.

He very nearly advised the man to move it and carry on.

But something stopped him. Perhaps it was the voice within that repeated his elder brother's occasional reminder that he concern himself with something other than gambling, whoring and drinking.

Or perhaps it was the way the "body", as the driver called it, pitched asprawl across the uneven brick, beneath the folds of a cloak that all but enshrouded what looked to be a surprisingly small form.

Booted heels rapped sharply on the brick as the gentleman leaped down and strode forward with purposeful steps. The driver remained where he was in the seat, looking around with round, frightened eyes, as if he feared they would be set upon by thieves and minions at any moment.

Not an unlikely possibility, the gentleman conceded silently.

He crouched down and touched her shoulder. "Mistress!" he said loudly. "Mistress, can you hear me?"

Shouts and running footsteps brought his head up, and his hand as well.

The tips of his fingers away wet with something dark and sticky.

And once again thoughts of his brother spilled through his mind, but this time for an entirely different reason.

There was no doubt, no uncertainty. He had to get her home.

Home to Sebastian.

A Perfect Bride

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