Too Wicked To Love
Book 2, Brides of Nevarton Chase trilogy

Avon
June 2011
ISBN: 978-0380807741

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Too wicked to love....but too tempting to resist!

Having already been deceived by a heartless fiancé, the young heiress Genevieve Wallington-Wallis knows better than to trust any man—which is why her attraction to John Ready is so very disturbing. Though devilishly handsome, he is far too mysterious—and a humble coachman, no less! But one inadvertent kiss and Genevieve is lost.

John dares not reveal his true identity to anyone or it’s the gallows for certain! He must concentrate on clearing his name—and prevent the fiend who sullied it, the notorious Raventhorpe, from working his evil on another innocent victim. But being this close to the clever, courageous, and exquisite Miss Wallington-Wallis is driving him to distraction. And surrendering to his desire—not to mention to love—may prove the most dangerous risk of all.

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AWARDS AND REVIEWS

"...a deeply touching love story that envelops its reader in a plush romantic world that will have readers cheering for these two lovely protagonists who deserve their happily ever after." - Romantic Crush Junkies

"...a wonderful story of deceit, love and forgiveness..." - Under the Covers

"Clever, romantic, passionate and adventurous, Mullins' latest is reading pleasure." - RT Book Reviews

 

Excerpt from Too Wicked To Love

Chapter One
London, June 1876

The girl mesmerized him.

John watched from his post against the wall as Genevieve Wallington-Willis flirted with a young viscount. Her husky laughter carried across the room, and her dark curls, bound by ribbons and flowers, bounced with each toss of her head. The full skirt of her white bridesmaid’s dress rippled with her movements, and the fitted bodice accented her generous bosom. Even from yards away he found himself distracted by her infectious smile and sparkling eyes.

Lured in, just like the young viscount.

He could not blame the lad. Genny Wallington-Willis had it all: beauty, social status and intelligent wit all in one enticing package. Was she aware of her power over the opposite sex, he wondered? He had been watching her all morning, ever since he and Samuel had arrived at the church where Samuel’s wedding to Genny’s sister Cilla had taken place. Now that the vows were said and the wedding breakfast devoured, the guests lingered in the reception rooms of Admiral Wallington-Willis’s London home, awaiting the cutting of the wedding cake. All the while Genny flitted from one man to the other like a butterfly in an extensive garden, fascinating all of them but staying with none.

He had seen her do the same at the handful of events that preceded the wedding. At all of them, like now, he had kept himself apart from the other guests, lingering on the sidelines so as not to draw attention to himself. He was not there to dally with the opposite sex, no matter how casual the affair. Yet as he watched her dazzle then abandon yet another besotted suitor, a dangerous notion slipped into his mind, taking hold like the devil’s whisper.

She would never walk away from me.

He was no rake, but he’d had a fair amount of success with the ladies in his time. He doubted such skills could be forgotten, even with the monkish existence he had been living these past few years. She laughed again, a siren song that ensnared his hungry libido. What would she do, he wondered, if challenged by a man who could match her?

The urge to try his hand, to stake his claim, silenced the voices murmuring caution in his mind. Surely a few minutes of innocent flirtation would do no harm. After all, he had managed to resist her all these weeks, and he would go back to resisting her again. But something about this day, about watching his best friend pledge to share his life with the woman he loved, awoke an unexpected yearning inside him. What could it hurt to exchange a few words of banter with a pretty girl? After Samuel came back from his honeymoon, John would probably never see her again anyway.

He took a step forward just as someone called her name. She turned, a ready smile on her lips. That smile dimmed as a handsome Naval officer approached. Alarm, horror—both flickered across Genny’s face in less than an instant at the sight of that gentleman, but then the brighter-than-the-sun smile returned full force. Had John not been studying her so closely, he would never have even realized anything was amiss.

She knew the young man. And she was dismayed to see him.

He halted, watching as she spoke with the Naval man for a few moments. As the conversation progressed, all trace of her former flirtatiousness vanished. Her smile disappeared, her lips pressing together in a line. Her fluttering hands settled at her sides in clenched fists, her spine straight as any blade.

The young man, on the other hand, kept his charming smile in place, his posture relaxed. What was he saying to her that put the light of battle in her eyes?

“There you are, John.” Samuel Breedlove stepped into his line of vision.

John fixed his gaze on his best friend’s face, managing with effort to conceal his irritation that the brawny, dark-haired bridegroom had managed to block his view of Genny. “Samuel. Allow me to offer my congratulations on your marriage.”

Samuel laughed and clapped John on the shoulder. “Why so formal? You sound like some stranger, not my most trusted friend.”

“Nonetheless, my felicitations are sincere.”

Samuel grew serious. “I know they are, as I know that without you, I might never have met Cilla. And for that, I owe you a tremendous debt.”

John shrugged and shifted so he could see past Samuel. Genny had vanished, though the Naval officer now lingered near the door. “Your friendship is thanks enough. You had best return to your bride, Samuel.”

“You’re just concerned my presence will draw attention to yours.”

John met his friend’s gaze. “That, too.”

“Very well, let’s go into the admiral’s study. I need to talk to you.”

The gravity of Samuel’s tone put John on the alert. “Is everything all right?”

“Just come with me.” Samuel started through the crowd, leaving John no choice but to follow. They left the ballroom, passing Genny’s naval officer, and headed for the stairs. As they descended, John noticed the fellow dart from the ballroom, down the hall, and into a nearby sitting room.

John hesitated on the stairs. First Genny had disappeared, and now this fellow had slipped from the party as well. She had not seemed to want the man’s company—or had that been a ploy to distract anyone watching from noticing a secret assignation? Such things were not unheard of with a coquette like her.

“John, are you coming?”

“Yes.” Turning away, John took the rest of the stairs at speed and followed Samuel into the admiral’s study.

***

Genny ducked into the small sitting room and closed the door behind her. Folding her arms around herself, she wandered to the window and looked out on the street below without actually seeing any of it.

“You will not cry,” she whispered to herself, even as the betraying tears stung. “Just because Mama and Papa did not warn you that Bradley would be here, in your own house…” She clenched her eyes closed. “He must have come with his parents. Of course he did. But I did not even know he was back from India.” She took a deep breath, straightened. “You can handle this, Genevieve. You learned your lesson. You are strong.”

The door to the sitting room opened. She whirled around as Midshipman Bradley Overton filled the doorway. “Hello, Genny.”

He dared follow her in here?

“This room is for private family use only, Bradley. Please rejoin the guests.”

“There was a time I was considered family.” He ignored her request and closed the door behind him. “I’ve missed you, Genny.”

His tender tone irritated rather than soothed. “Do not insult either of us with more lies.”

“It is not a lie.” He took a step closer to her. “Ever since we—”

“Stop.” She held up a hand. “You told me you loved me when all you wanted was to marry the admiral’s daughter. That constitutes a lie.”

“You misunderstood.”

“No,” she snapped. “I did not. It is quite difficult to misunderstand one’s own fiancé laughing about her gullibility with his ship mates. You courted me for your Naval career. Not because you loved me as you claimed.”

He tilted his head as he regarded her. “You have become quite hard-hearted, Genny. I can hardly credit it.”

“Perhaps you should consider yourself lucky that we did not wed after all.”

“I hoped our time apart might have made you see reason.” He gave her a slow lingering study that would once have sent shivers of delight through her. “I miss you, Genny.”

“I certainly do not share your sentiment.” She eyed the distance to the door. The only problem was, he stood between her and escape. “I should return to the reception. My family will be looking for me.” She started forward. Perhaps if she moved quickly enough, she could slip by him.

“Wait a moment.” He took her arm before she could pass him.

She halted, finding herself staring into the blue eyes that had once made her weak at the knees. You are stronger than this. Walk away.

“Do you remember the last time we were alone together?” he murmured, tracing her cheek with his fingers.

God help her, but she did. She closed her eyes as longing swept through her, challenging her hard-won confidence. Why couldn’t he have been the man she had thought he was? She had wanted so desperately for it all to be real. To be married and have a family. To have someone who would finally love her, completely and unconditionally.

His deception had left her feeling foolish. Unwanted. Naïve.

Not any more. She would not accept his imitation of love, no matter how blue his eyes or how pretty his words. She had made that mistake once, had allowed herself to be lured into the fantasy and to throw caution to the winds. Living with the consequences of that fateful night had taught her a hard lesson.

One she would never forget.

***

John closed the door to the study behind him. “What happened, Samuel? This should be a happy day for you.”

“It is a happy day. Cilla is my world. I only hope that you, too, will someday experience such happiness.”

“Dear God! Never tell me that you are married for mere hours and already seeking to see your friends join you in matrimony.” John grinned, trying to stave off another odd pang of envy.

Samuel chuckled and perched a hip on the admiral’s desk. “No, not at all. I know you intend to stay in England until Cilla and I get back from our wedding trip and then you’ll head back to America with us. What are your plans while we’re gone? Are you going to visit family?”

“No.” John’s heart clenched as he said it, and he turned to peruse the admiral’s globe so his expression would not betray him.

“You have no plans at all? London is a fascinating city.”

“I know.” John gave the globe a spin. “I spent much of my youth here.”

“Was that before or after you eloped to Scotland?”

“Both.” The edge to the word spoke volumes.

“I’m sorry, John. I have marriage on my mind, I suppose. I know your past is not something you tend to discuss.”

“Correct.”

“So let’s talk about my past then.”

John looked over at him. “Raventhorpe?”

“Raventhorpe,” Samuel confirmed.

John turned to face him, frowning. “Has our mutual enemy resurfaced already? I thought he was in France, waiting out the scandal from trying to abscond with your ex-fiancée.”

“He is, as far as I know. But this is the bastard who left me for dead on a deserted island, then tried to steal Annabelle away from me. And that’s only a short list of his numerous offenses.”

“I do not know how that snake always manages to slither away,” John said. “The people he has killed, the women he has sold into sexual slavery… How does he keep escaping punishment for his crimes?”

“The devil watches after his own,” Samuel said.

“Apparently so. At least Miss Bailey was smart enough to jilt the blackguard.”

“And that’s the problem. Annabelle did jilt Raventhorpe, and he won’t forget that. But she also freed me from my betrothal to her so I could marry Cilla, something I can’t forget. She allowed me my heart’s desire, John, at personal sacrifice to herself.”

“A noble act,” John agreed. “But you are correct. Raventhorpe will not allow her rejection of him and the ensuing scandal to go unpunished.”

“That was my thought, as well. I think he might see my absence as an opportunity to strike back at her. He’ll think she is unprotected.”

“Agreed.”

“Which is why I need you to watch over her until I get back. He doesn’t know about you.”

“True.”

“And you did such a good job of staying out of sight—posing as my coachman, for God’s sake—that he has no idea you’re back in England.”

“I did not pose. I was your coachman.”

“As if anyone with eyes could not tell that you were born to be more.”

“Leave it be, Samuel.”

“Leave it?” Samuel stood. “Even though you never confided in me, I know you are more than the humble man you seem. Something happened that made you flee England, and you only came back here to help me stop Annabelle from marrying Raventhorpe.”

“The past is done and gone, Samuel. Let us move forward into the future.”

“Look, I’m grateful for everything you’ve done for me, and I want to respect your desire to stay in the shadows, but bloody hell, John, you wouldn’t even stand up for me at my wedding!”

“Virgil Bailey did a good enough job of it.” Seeing Samuel’s impatience, John shook his head. They had been over this before. “It would have been my honor to stand up with you, Samuel, but it is better if no one notices me, especially those in positions of authority. And the front of a crowded church is hardly the best place to stay out of sight.”

“I know that, blast you! But—”

“Look, you asked me to guard Miss Bailey while you’re gone. Consider it done.”

“I…oh. Well. Excellent then.” Samuel nodded and let the other matter drop, though not permanently, if the stubborn set of his jaw was any indication. “I know I’m asking a lot, John. I wish I could think of another way.” He paused. “I could hire a security detail, I suppose—”

“Except that Miss Bailey is an heiress. You need someone you can trust.”

“Exactly. I trust you, John. Not only do you have a fortune of your own, but I don’t think Annabelle appeals to you that way.”

“God, no. She’s a pretty girl, but I see her more as your little sister, not to mention your former fiancée And as for the fortune—”

Samuel scowled and folded his arms. “Don’t you dare tell me again that you don’t want the money, John. You spent your own savings to come and find me when Raventhorpe left me for dead. Fate was kind enough to hand us a pirate’s treasure in return, and you deserve half of it.”

“As I started to say, I would be grateful for my share, once we get back to America.”

Samuel blinked. “Well, hell. What’s gotten into you today? I thought I would have to tie you down and shove the money down your throat.”

“Maybe weddings make me sentimental.”

“Oh, right. Certainly that must be it.” Samuel fixed him with blatant look of disbelief.

“Leave off, Samuel,” John said, heading for the door. “You’re not my captain any longer. Or my employer for that matter, since you no longer need a coachman.”

“Then what the hell am I?”

John stopped with his hand on the doorknob and met Samuel’s gaze. “My one true friend.”

The anger fled Samuel’s expression like steam escaping a boiling pot. “I just want to help you,” he said.

“I know. But some things are better left alone.”

Samuel nodded. “All right. Thank you for protecting Annabelle while we’re gone.”

“You are welcome.” John opened the door.

“If it helps,” Samuel said, making John pause at his words, “the Baileys intend to leave London for Nevarton Chase tomorrow. So you’ll be out of the city and sequestered in happy obscurity in the country.”

“Good news indeed.” John hesitated, then said, “Be happy Samuel. Enough for both of us.”

He left the study, shutting the door before his friend could respond.

***

Genny jerked free of Bradley’s hold and backed up a step, shaking off the nostalgia of the past. Bradley Overton did not like to lose, and she had bested him by breaking off their courtship last year. And as for the last time they had been alone together…

She preferred not to relive the crowning jewel of her humiliation. That was the past. She was a different woman now. “Let me pass, Bradley. My parents will be missing me.”

Bradley did not budge, his gaze intent like a spider with its prey. “Come now, Genny. Let’s not part in anger.”

“Too late for that.” She tried to pass him again, but this time when he reached for her, she snatched up one of her mother’s cherub figurines from a nearby table and raised it like a weapon. “Touch me again and your head will be ringing for weeks.”

He slowly drew back his hand. “I suppose you are still overset about what happened between us.”

“Overset!” Her voice ended on a squeak of outrage, and she forced herself to take a breath. “I am not overset. Overset would indicate that I cared anything for you or what you think. And that is just not true.”

“Then why did you just threaten me with Cupid?” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Perhaps you have heard my name recently linked with Miss Fitzwarren’s?”

“Certainly not.”

“Maybe you are jealous. I know she is your friend.”

“Hardly jealous,” Genny said, “but perhaps I should warn her of your talent for spinning falsehoods.”

“The rumors are not true, you know. You are the only woman I have ever wanted to wed.”

The knowledge that such an utterance would once have filled her heart with joy only added to the bitter taste of shame at her own naiveté. How could she have been so easily fooled by a charismatic smile and a few well chosen words? Was she truly so gullible? So hungry for someone to love her that she would accept even this sham of the real thing?

“Do you miss us, what we had?” He lowered his voice as he came closer, backing her into the corner between the door and the table. The scent of the cigars he favored filled the air between them. “I cannot forget, Genny, not any of it.”

“I already have,” she lied.

Anger flared in his eyes, and he grabbed her free arm, hauling her against him. “Now who is ‘spinning falsehoods?’”

She swung the cupid at his head, but he caught her wrist and squeezed. The figurine crashed to the floor.

The door opened. Genny closed her eyes for a moment and imagined how it looked—her caught in a man’s arms, however unwillingly—and anticipated the social doom that was about to descend.

“Miss Wallington-Willis,” a male voice said, “they are preparing to cut the cake.”

She opened her eyes and found John Ready standing in the doorway like calmness personified. Tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed and bearded, his very stillness should have acted as balm to her fractured composure, but those dark eyes had always given her the impression they saw more than she would have liked. Right now his steady gaze fell on Bradley, who suddenly released her and stepped back, as if commanded by John’s look alone.

She could not help but be impressed by this silent show of male power. John Ready was a mystery. He worked as a coachman but talked like a gentleman and held an odd place in Samuel’s household, more friend than employee. And had it been anyone else who had walked through that door, she would have been effusive in expressing her thanks. Yet all she could think as she moved away from her former suitor was why did it have to be him who stumbled upon them?

“Thank you, Mr. Ready,” she said, seeking comfort in protocol.

He swung that unwavering, condemning gaze on her, chilling the warmth of any gratitude she harbored.

“I will escort you back to the ballroom,” John said.

Censure underscored the words, and she stiffened, stung by his quick judgement. “That would be lovely, thank you.” She arched her eyebrows at Bradley, who stepped aside so she could join John at the door.

John swept his arm toward the hallway.

She eased past him, so close that the tang of his cologne tingled her senses, her skirts brushing against his long legs. Dear Lord, she had never realized how very tall he was!

Bradley apparently realized he had lost control of the situation. “Hold a moment! I said hold, Mister…er—”

John stopped in the doorway and looked back at Bradley. “Do not leave this room for five minutes. There will be no scandal at this wedding.”

Bradley opened his mouth to respond, but one hard look from John had him closing it again and nodding.

John shut the door behind them as he and Genny left the sitting room.

“Your timing was excellent,” Genny murmured as John guided her back towards the reception.

“I did this for your sister,” John said. “She does not deserve the scandal that would result if it got out her sister was consorting with a lover during her wedding breakfast.”

She sucked in a sharp breath. “You are quite blunt, Mr. Ready.”

“I just try to tell the truth.”

“Then add this to your truth: I have no lover.”

He slanted her an unreadable look. “Based on what I just witnessed, I find that hard to believe.”

“Try,” she gritted through her teeth.

“If that young man was not your lover, then why did I find you in his arms? Why did you not cry out for help?”

Heat crept into her cheeks. “When you say it like that, it certainly sounds terrible. I was hiding from Bradley, not with him. He followed me.”

“Perhaps it was prearranged.”

She bit back a rude retort and tried for a reasonable tone. “I was almost engaged to Bradley, but our association ended last season. However, he apparently has not accepted our parting as well as I thought.”

John stopped. “Is he making a nuisance of himself?”

She halted as well, noting warning tone of his voice, the tension of his stance. Here stood a man ready for battle. A tingle swept through her. Clearly, if he thought Bradley was bothering her, he would do something about it. Part of her wished she could allow him to defend her honor, but it would only make matters worse.

She was wise enough now to handle her own problems. And she had no desire to be indebted to him, of all people. Not with his obviously poor opinion of her.

“I have not seen him in nearly a year, and I did not know he was going to be here today. No one told me.” She pressed her lips together, still angry at the oversight.

“I apologize for my conclusions. I thought this was an assignation.” He cast a narrow-eyed gaze down the hall. “I will go back and have a word with him.”

“No.” She grabbed his arm, then dropped her hand when he raised his brows. “As I said, I have not seen him in over a year. I do not understand what he wants from me when our association has clearly ended.”

John gave a hard chuckle and smoothed his sleeve. “He wants what every man wants.”

She cast him a sharp glance. “What do you mean by that?”

“You know what I mean, Miss Wallington-Willis.” He gave her a quick, assessment from head to toe that made her breath catch. She was still trying to calm her racing heart when he placed her hand on his arm and led her to the doors to the ballroom. “You are a beautiful woman, but you cannot play with men’s hearts like toys. One day you will flirt with the wrong gentleman and discover you have bitten off more than you can chew.”

Genny stiffened, her cordial feelings towards him evaporating. “Are you saying I somehow gave Bradley the impression his attentions would be welcome?”

“Men are easily dazzled by beautiful women. Perhaps you should be more conservative in your behavior towards the male sex.”

She jerked her hand away from his arm. “You are very rude, John Ready. How dare you accuse me of being a…a…”

“A flirt? Fast?”

“And now you insult me. Well, thank you for your assistance, Mr. Ready, but I believe I can see myself back to the festivities.” She turned on her heel and marched back into the ballroom.

John watched her go, a hint of her scent lingering in her wake. She was a handful, that one. Beautiful and spirited. At least he would soon be leaving for Nevarton Chase with the Baileys to watch over Annabelle. He would no longer have to associate with—or fight his attraction to—the distracting Genny Wallington-Willis.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want a woman in his life. Quite the contrary. But not someone like Genny. Not a woman with connections to the very life he’d abandoned, especially a flirt who appeared oblivious to the broken hearts she left in her wake.

He could not help but wonder, had she been telling the truth about the young Naval officer, or had she said that because she had been caught? If the fellow’s attentions had truly been unwelcome, why hadn’t she let John have a word with him?

The entire situation brought back old memories he had managed to keep at bay until now. He knew well the games these coquettes played, and Genny Wallington-Willis seemed no different than any other. Better for all of them if he kept his distance from her and focused on what was important.

With Samuel married to Cilla and Raventhorpe in retreat for the moment, he felt he was ready, for the first time in years, to pursue his own goals—but not in England. He would claim his half of the fortune he had discovered with Samuel and start a new life in America. He could have a wife, children. A home. Everything he had always dreamed about.

No one was ever going to take that away from him again.

“Oh, John, here you are.”

He glanced down, surprised to see that the new Mrs. Breedlove had approached while he was watching her sister and was now standing in the doorway in front of him. The petite brunette looked stunning in white silk and lace with a wreath of orange blossoms in her dark hair. She smiled, and he caught the flash of a quick dimple in the corner of her mouth, a trait she shared with her sister, Genny.

He gave a brief bow. “How may I be of service, Mrs. Breedlove?”

She laughed. “Do be certain to call me that a few more times, John, so I can become accustomed to it!” She stepped out into the hall with him and waved her hand to indicate he should join her out of sight of the doorway.

He followed her, puzzled. “Is something wrong?”

“I only have a moment. We are getting ready to cut the cake, and once that happens Samuel and I will be rushing off on our honeymoon. So this is the only time I can approach you to ask a terribly important favor.”

“Of course. Anything I can do.”

She clasped her hands together, her brown eyes full of apprehension. “I feel somewhat selfish asking this of you. After all, we are not family, though I know Samuel considers you closer than a brother. That would make you akin to my brother-in-law, correct? Family. And I am just so worried about her, John. Someone needs to look out for her while I am gone.”

“Is this about—”

“She is just so young, John,” Cilla plowed on, “and she thinks she knows the ways of the world, but she does not. I have tried to talk to her, but we have all been at sixes and sevens over the wedding preparations.”

“I know. Samuel already—”

“She is just so headstrong. So certain she knows how things work. But that is just not true, even if she refuses to believe it. And I simply cannot go off to my wedding trip without making certain someone will be watching over her, especially way off in the country at Nevarton Chase. She could get into all sorts of mischief there.”

“Mrs. Breedlove.” John held up a hand when she paused for breath. “Have no fear. I have already discussed this with Samuel.”

“You have?” She beamed, relief lighting her eyes. “I did not even share my concerns with him.”

“He thought of it himself.”

“Dear God, I have married the best man in the world.” She clapped her hands together. “Except for you, of course, John.”

“Of course, except for me.” He grinned.

“I cannot thank you enough!” A servant came into the hallway, caught her eye, and waved her back toward the ballroom. “I must go. You must have some cake, John. Say that you will.”

“I will.”

“Wonderful.” She reached out and squeezed his hand. “Thank you so much, John. I cannot tell you how much easier I will rest knowing that you are looking out for my sister.” She turned and hurried toward the ballroom.

Sister? Not Miss Bailey?

“What…wait! I am to leave with the Baileys for Nevarton Chase right after the wedding.”

“Yes, I know.” She flashed him an impossibly happy smile. “Genny is going, too. They are having a house party.” She gave him a little wave as the servant hustled her back into the ballroom, leaving him alone in the hallway.

“Ah, hell.”


Copyright © 2011 Debra Mullins
All rights reserved
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