Oliver Huntsbury, the Fifth Duke of Somerfeld, was not usually a man to run from a fight.
But when faced with five armed assailants, all hell-bent on causing him as much harm as possible, and when one of those assailants was brandishing a knife and threatening to part him from his manhood, there was only one sensible course of action. Run.
So run he did down the backstage corridors of the Limelight Theatre.
He vaulted over props left carelessly lying in his path, dodged past stagehands moving scenery and flew past preening showgirls, their perfume wafting out like a floral cloud, masking the musky smell of the damp building. He ignored the temptation to stop and admire the scantily clad beauties. For once he had something more important on his mind: self-preservation.
‘Come here, you guttersnipe, and take your punishment like a man,’ Lord Bufford bellowed behind him. The irate peer of the realm raised his knife above his head, causing the corridor to clear immediately of showgirls and stagehands, as if a conjurer had waved his magic wand.
So once again he turned and ran. Somewhere in this labyrinth of corridors was Lucy’s dressing room. He had to find it before the thugs caught him and stripped him of his most prized possession.
Oliver was loath to hide behind a woman’s skirts, but Lucy would provide him with the necessary alibi to prove to these murderous marauders that he could not possibly be Lady Bufford’s lover. Not when he had spent every night in the inviting arms of Lucy Baker. At least that’s what he hoped the renowned actress would say. He had indeed spent many a night in her lovely arms, with her even lovelier legs wrapped around his waist, but he had also spent the occasional night sampling the abundant charms of Lady Bufford. And, yes, he had been known, on occasion, to have more than one woman at a time in his bed. But even he was not capable of servicing one woman in London while at the same time tupping another woman at her Essex estate.
As long as Lucy vouched for him and said he had spent every night with her, then his beloved body part would be safe. As would Lady Bufford’s reputation. While the lady had never been reticent about taking a lover to her bed, she most definitely did not want that fact made public.
And having your lover dismembered by your irate husband would certainly get the tongues wagging. Not to mention putting a damper on your lover’s ardour.
Lady Bufford had long ago lost interest in her boorish husband, but she had never lost interest in his money, or the comfortable life and position in society that their marriage provided. If Lord Bufford took the drastic action of petitioning for divorce on the grounds of adultery, it would be the ruin of her and such public shaming was not a fate Oliver wanted for any of his mistresses.
No, he had no choice but to keep running. He increased his speed as he rounded another corner. Where was Lucy’s dressing room? He was sure he knew the way. Was he running down the same corridor he had just speeded down? Was he going in circles?
He overturned a rail of brightly coloured costumes, sending it crashing behind him. Hopefully that would slow down his assailants and give him time to think.
Hadn’t Lucy mentioned something about taking up another position last time they had been together? He’d assumed she wanted him to get even more adventurous in their lovemaking, but perhaps he’d misunderstood and she’d secured another acting position in a different theatre. He really should pay more attention to what women were saying. He hadn’t noticed her on stage during tonight’s performance, but his attention had been taken by a new actress, one he hadn’t seen before. She certainly had been a delight, with her midnight-black hair, ivory skin and that stunning body. But he should not be thinking of that now. He had to find Lucy. He had to keep running.
‘It’s blackmail, it’s extortion, it’s…it’s…it’s just plain wrong.’ Arabella glared at her father, her hands placed firmly on her hips to emphasise her point.
‘Call it what you will, my dear, but it’s the best offer you’re going to get.’ Her father stared back at her, his stony face implacable. It was the look Arabella imagined he wore when he
That left Lord Bufford, backed by his four burly henchmen, armed with an assortment of chains, knuckledusters and coshes, at one end of the corridor and Oliver at the other.
stared down any business rival foolish enough to try to get the better of Mr van Haven. Her father hadn’t dragged himself up from poverty to become one of America’s richest men by being faint-hearted. And now Arabella was on the receiving end of his merciless deal making.
But she shouldn’t be so surprised. Hadn’t she learnt from bitter experience that her father would do anything to get what he wanted, regardless of who got hurt and that included his only daughter?
‘I’m being more than fair. Most men who discovered their daughter had defied them and become a professional actress would not be as forgiving as I’m being. All I’m saying is, you’ve had your fun and now you’re going to have to do what I sent you to England to do: marry a man with a title. And to sweeten the deal, and to make sure you do nothing to undermine my plans, I’ll save your precious theatre. It’s as simple as that.’
Simple. There was nothing simple about this outlandish proposal. ‘Basically, you’re going to pay me to get married, or rather, you’re going to pay the theatre if I marry.’
Arabella had hoped to shame him. Surely he could see that blackmailing his daughter into marriage because he wanted the status that came with being related to a member of the British aristocracy was something any decent man would be thoroughly ashamed of.
But his expression showed no shame—instead he sent her a self-satisfied smile. ‘Good. Finally you understand what’s expected of you.’
Arabella shook her head rapidly, her bottom lip trembling. What was she thinking? Of course he would feel no shame. When it came to financial transactions nothing mattered to him except winning the deal. And in this instance, his daughter’s marriage was nothing more than another financial deal to be won.
‘I won’t do it. I just won’t.’
‘Oh, yes, you will,’ her father said, his voice a calm contrast. ‘You can pout all you want. You can even throw a temper tantrum if you must, but you will marry into the aristocracy. And I won’t be returning to America until you do. You’ve let me down once and it won’t happen again.’
He drew in a deep breath and exhaled loudly. ‘But I suppose I have only myself to blame. I should have known better than to let you come to England with my sister rather than accompanying you myself. All Prudence had to do was chaperon you when you met the man I had arranged for you to marry. But even that was beyond her.’ He shook his head. ‘And how the Duke of Knightsbrook ended up married to my ward instead of you I’ll never know. But now I’m here, so there will be no more of your tricks. You will be getting married to a titled man.’
Arabella blinked away tears of anger and frustration. ‘How can you possibly do this? It’s…it’s…’
‘It’s all for your own good. Left to your own devices you know you’ll make the wrong choice—haven’t you already proven that? So now you will do as you’re told and I will generously inject the necessary money into this theatre. And if you’re not convinced by that offer, I believe you should consider the alternative. You will have to come back to America with me on the next ship. You will never act again, even in amateur productions, and this theatre you inexplicably love so much might struggle on for a few weeks more at its present dismal level, before sinking without trace and all your new friends will be without a job. And unlike you, I doubt if any of them has a rich father to support them. Would you really see them thrown out on the streets, without money, without a job?’
‘It’s despicable, simply despicable,’ Arabella muttered under her breath, sorrow clenching her heart. She could not stop acting, it was the one thing she lived for. Nor could she deny the theatre the chance of survival. It desperately needed more funds for advertising, for better props and scenery. Tonight’s house had been less than half-full and, now that their leading lady, Lucy Baker, had left them for brighter prospects, they had also lost their main drawcard. The theatre desperately needed more money if it was to survive.
But this? Marriage? And to a man of her father’s choosing. It was too much to ask.
‘I can see you’re upset, my dear, so I’ll make you one concession.’
Arabella’s tense shoulders eased slightly and she waited for him to throw her a lifeline.
‘It can be any sort of title. I’m not that fussy. Duke, earl, viscount, even a baron will do, as long as you become Lady Something.’
Arabella’s mouth almost dropped open and she stared at him in disbelief. It was hardly a concession. No matter how you looked at it, she was expected to sell herself in marriage to any man with a title to satisfy her father’s need for self-aggrandisement. Being one of the richest men in America was not enough for him. Now he was going to use his daughter to get the social status that he’d always felt he lacked because he had been born poor. She was going to be sacrificed on the wedding altar just so that her father could feel superior in status as well as financially to those snobs back in New York. It was unconscionable.
‘Oh, stop sulking, Arabella,’ he barked at her. ‘It’s the first thing I’ve ever asked of you after a lifetime of indulging your every whim. Haven’t I always given you everything you’ve ever wanted?’
Arabella continue to stare back at him, too shocked to answer. Yes, he had given her everything she could ever want in terms of material goods—fine clothes, expensive jewellery, music lessons, singing lessons and more—but as for affection, attention, they were areas which he’d severely neglected.
‘I even forgave you when you acted in those little amateur shows back in New York, but I never thought you’d be so simpleminded as to do it professionally. Hopefully the substantial amount of money you’ll bring to any marriage will counter the damage you’ve already done to your reputation. But now that I’m here in England we can put all this nonsense behind us. Once you’re married you’ll be a lady, living the life of luxury on your country estate, and all this acting nonsense will be forgotten.’
The ground wobbled under Arabella’s feet. She wouldn’t do it. She would not give up the life she loved and she’d find some other way to save the theatre that didn’t involve her being sold off like a piece of chattel. She had worked so hard to get this acting job. It hadn’t just taken skill as an actress, but had also involved scheming and planning so she could attend rehearsals without Aunt Prudence knowing. Her subterfuge had become more complicated when her father had arrived in England to attend his ward’s wedding to the Duke of Knightsbrook. But she had succeeded. That is, until tonight.
‘I mean you were born for better things than this,’ he continued, looking around her tiny dressing room with distaste. He scraped a piece of flaking cream paint off the wall with his thumbnail, further exposing the rough grey plaster underneath, then glared at the dressing table with its split timber and tarnished mirror, and the racks of costumes and props cluttering up the corners.
It might be small and, yes, perhaps a little shabby, and it was unfortunate that it doubled as a storeroom, but Arabella was pleased to have a real dressing room in a professional theatre, to have her first part on the London stage, even if it was a minor role.
And she’d much rather be in this shabby dressing room than being bored to death at the tedious balls and social events that a woman of her class was expected to attend. Thanks to her father’s constant absences she had been able to avoid most of the events hosted by New York society. And since her arrival in London, she had been given almost free rein. Her hypochondriac Aunt Prudence took to her bed most days with one imagined illness after another, and Nellie, her lady’s maid, was more a friend than a servant and would do anything she could to help Arabella achieve her dream.
It had been her dream since she was a child to make her own way in the world as an actress. And now that she was on the cusp of achieving that dream, she would not have it snapped away from her by her father. She just had to find a way to do what countless businessmen and politicians had failed to do and get the better of her father, the notoriously ruthless New York banker, Mr van Haven.
The door flew open and Arabella’s attention was drawn to a tall, blond-haired man barging into the room. Every inch the dashing leading man, he was staring straight at her with those deep brown eyes and heading in her direction, fast.
‘There you are, my darling,’ he said, sending her a roguish smile.
Before she could register who he was or what was happening he grabbed her firmly around the waist, tipped her backwards until one leg was off the ground and kissed her.
A gasp escaped Arabella’s lips and she clung on to the stranger to stop herself from falling backwards. Although with him holding her so tightly falling was the least of her worries.
This was an outrage. She should stop this. Immediately.
So why didn’t she? Was it because it felt strangely comforting to be held in his strong arms? Or was it because his fresh masculine scent, all musk and leather with the hint of a citrus shaving soap, was somewhat enticing?
She melted into his arms, her body moulding against his in a perfect fit. It was as if this was where she was meant to be.
No. That was ridiculous. This was not where she was meant to be. This had to stop. Right now. Especially as his tongue was running temptingly along her bottom lip, causing her to part her lips so she could fully appreciate the experience.
No. This was outrageous. She had to put a halt to this before he deepened the kiss. Stop it before she started kissing him back. She ran her hands through his tousled hair, telling herself it didn’t matter how good his lips felt on hers. It didn’t matter how nice it was to be held so closely. No, it didn’t matter at all.
He pulled her in even closer, causing her to dissolve against his body. His strong body. How could she not fail to register the muscles of his chest? Hard, firm, powerful muscles.
Oh, yes, this was wrong. So wrong. But it felt so right to be kissed in such a manner. When that double-crossing Arnold Emerson had kissed her, it had been nothing like this. This time she was in the arms of an expert. Opening her mouth wider, she relished the masculine taste of him, loving the feel of his skin rasping against her cheek. She had no intention of stopping this pleasure. Not when she was enjoying herself so much.
But he had other ideas. He lifted her upright, back on to two feet, and sent her a quick wink and the most devilish smile she had ever seen. She stared back at him as if in a daze. Blinked to clear the fog, then looked over at her father and waited for his outburst.
Her father would now do what she should have already done. He would reprimand this man in no uncertain terms for taking such a liberty with a woman’s virtue.
But her father said nothing. Instead he took his time to scrutinise the stranger. Arabella watched expectantly as his gaze moved over the man’s well-tailored three-piece black evening suit. He smiled as he looked at the solid gold chain of his fob watch suspended between his pockets, the mother-of-pearl cufflinks. His smile widened. Arabella could see he was staring at the large gold signet ring on the man’s index finger, etched with a coat of arms. He then turned to the ruffians loitering at the door and his smile grew so wide he was baring his teeth, like a wolf who has spotted a tethered lamb.
‘I’m Mr van Haven,’ he said, extending his hand to the stranger. ‘And after a kiss like that I can only assume that you are my daughter Arabella’s fiancé.’
The stranger looked at her father, then over his shoulder at the ruffians, then back at the extended hand. ‘Indeed, I am, sir. And I’m very pleased to finally make your acquaintance,’ he said, giving her father’s hand a brisk shake.
The phrase out of the frying pan and into the fire seemed disastrously apt, as Oliver continued to shake the smiling American’s hand while glancing back at the scowling Lord Bufford.
And it was a fire he was going to have to extinguish as quickly as possible. Being engaged was not for him and marriage was most definitely out of the question. Like his father before him, he was not a one-woman man. But unlike his father he would never subject any woman to the pain of being married to an unfaithful husband. He had vowed never to hurt a woman the way his father had hurt his mother and had sworn off marriage many years ago. That was why he only got involved with women like Lady Bufford and Lucy Baker, women who played by the same rules as him. Keep it fun, keep it casual and never expect commitment.
He looked over at the young woman he was now supposedly engaged to. She was certainly beautiful, the sort of woman many men would be happy to call their wife. But right now, his supposedly future wife was looking as disorientated as he felt.
Her long, slim fingers were gently touching her full red lips, her face was flushed a delightful shade of pink and those big blue eyes were quickly flicking from him to the older man and back again.
It was the same actress he had admired during this evening’s performance. The one whose acquaintance he was hoping to eventually make, although most definitely not under these conditions.
It was obvious they were father and daughter. Both had jet-black hair, although the father was greying at the temples, and both had those blue eyes, although on the daughter they gave her a soft, gentle appearance, while on him the eyes were icy blue, accentuating his shrewd, calculating demeanour.
It was also obvious the father was up to something, but whatever it was, for now, it seemed, the plans of Mr van Haven would serve Oliver’s needs as well.
He sent the young beauty a silent apology for what he was about to do and hoped that she would not just forgive him, but would also play along.
‘Arabella has probably already told you all about me, but allow me to formally introduce myself,’ he said, still clasping the American’s hand. ‘I’m Oliver Huntsbury, the Duke of Somerfeld.’
‘A duke? Well, well, a duke,’ Mr van Haven purred, his piercing eyes boring into Oliver’s. ‘My daughter really has made a good catch. We’d better be careful to make sure you don’t get off the hook. So, are you going to introduce us to your friends?’
They both looked towards the menacing presence looming at the door.
Friends? That was an exaggeration if ever Oliver had heard one. ‘Yes, of course. May I introduce Lord Bufford and his associates: Joe Butcher, Frank Thugger, Arthur Scarmaker, and Fred Killerman.’
Mr van Haven nodded a greeting, but got a line of scowling black looks in response. Perhaps Lord Bufford’s associates didn’t like the names he had assigned them, but at least they had the decency to hide their weapons behind their backs.
‘Lord Bufford is Lady Bufford’s husband,’ Oliver continued, looking in Arabella’s direction and giving her his most beseeching smile. She might not be Lucy Baker, but he could only hope she was as equally good an actress and would indulge in a bit of improvisation.
‘Lady Bufford and Arabella are the best of friends,’ he continued, turning to Lord Bufford. ‘The two of them have spent many an evening together, gossiping the night away. I’ve felt quite neglected, I must say.’
‘We have?’ the American beauty asked. He sent her another pleading look and tilted his head in the direction of the door.
‘Oh, yes, we have. Your wife is quite a delightful companion,’ she added, giving Lord Bufford a tentative smile.
Oliver smiled with relief. He had his alibi. Hopefully now that would mean the departure of Lord Bufford and his murderous entourage. And his own departure. As much as he would like to get better acquainted with the young, black-haired actress, and as much as he’d like a repeat performance of that kiss, it was a pleasure he would have to forgo. This situation was complicated enough already. It was time to simplify things by exiting, stage right.
‘As we’re all such good friends I’m sure Lord Bufford and his associates would like to join us for a late supper so we can celebrate my daughter’s engagement to the Duke of Somerfeld,’ Mr van Haven said smoothly.
Oliver’s smile faded. It seemed his departure was going to have to be delayed a while longer.
All three turned to look at Lord Bufford, whose lips curled back in a menacing sneer.
‘We’d be delighted,’ he growled, staring straight at Oliver.
Mr van Haven patted Oliver on the back. ‘Right, Lord Bufford, you and I will go and find a couple of carriages to take us all to the Savoy, and while we’re doing that you can tell me all about my future son-in-law.’
The four thugs turned to follow Lord Bufford and Oliver could see an opportunity to escape opening up. A quick apology and maybe a goodbye kiss to the young actress and he’d be off.
Mr van Haven held up his hand to halt the thugs’ progress. ‘Oh, no. You four can wait here. We won’t be long.’ He sent what could only be called a triumphant smirk in Oliver’s direction. ‘You can chaperon my daughter and the Duke while we’re gone.’
Chaperons? More like prison wardens.
With a sinking heart Oliver saw his opportunity to escape close off. It seemed only an unwise man would underestimate Mr van Haven—the man was a veritable mind reader. And he had made sure that Oliver would continue to be engaged to be married to his daughter, at least for a while longer.
Arabella stared at the stranger, this Duke of Somerfeld, her fiancé. He sent her an apologetic smile, a smile that was difficult not to warm to. It lit up his face and drew her eyes to his full, sculptured lips.
She was determined to be angry with him. This man who was obviously trouble with a capital T. But it was hard to maintain that anger while gazing into tawny-brown eyes that sparked with mischief, and a face so handsome that he should be on the stage.
Arabella’s appraising gaze took in the small crinkles round his eyes, lines that showed he laughed a lot. She moved to his strong jawline with the hint of stubble, then back up to his lips, those lips that had kissed her into a state of oblivion.
At the time, it had felt as though he was kissing her as if his life depended on it. Now it was apparent that was not far from the truth, if the murderous looks of the four burly brutes still looming at the door were anything to go by.
Arabella gave herself a small shake. There was no point thinking of that kiss now. This was an impossible situation and they had to find a way out of it.
She stepped towards him and his smile changed from apologetic to appreciative. Arabella ignored both that look and the way her heart was beating harder now that she was so close to him. So close she could feel the warmth of his body. So close that his masculine scent was once again filling her senses.
‘So, who are you really and what are you doing in my dressing room?’ she whispered so the ruffians at the door wouldn’t hear.
He raised an amused eyebrow. ‘I really am Oliver Huntsbury, the Duke of Somerfeld, and I apologise for my somewhat unconventional entrance. I was looking for Lucy Baker.’
Arabella’s spine straightened and she tilted up her chin. ‘Oh, I’m sorry to disappoint you.’ She heard the offended note in her voice and mentally kicked herself. Who cared if it was Lucy Baker he had meant to kiss? He just shouldn’t have kissed her. He shouldn’t be in her dressing room and he most certainly should not have agreed to be her fiancé.
‘Believe me, I am not disappointed, anything but.’ He smiled at her again, that heart-stopping, devilish smile that made his eyes dance with amusement. ‘But you do deserve an explanation.’ He nodded in the direction of the door. ‘Lord Bufford and his associates have taken exception to my friendship with Lady Bufford. They were threatening to commit extreme acts of violence on my various body parts, so I was looking for Lucy, who is also a good friend, hoping she would provide me with an alibi to prove my innocence.’
Arabella’s posture became more rigid, her lips more pinched. ‘I take it Lady Bufford and Lucy Baker are actually more than just your good friends.’ She hadn’t meant to sound quite so judgemental. After all, this man meant nothing to her, so why should she care who he was or wasn’t good friends with?
He ran his hand along the back of his neck. ‘Well, yes, you could say that.’
Arabella huffed her disapproval. One of her questions had been answered. When he kissed her, she had suspected she was in the arms of an experienced man, a man who knew how to please a woman. And that was quite obviously the case. It explained why she had reacted to him the way she had. It was not her fault. It was simply his technique and experience that had caused her uncharacteristic response.
It also explained the high opinion he appeared to have of himself. His confident countenance was definitely that of a man who knew he could easily seduce any woman he chose. But she wasn’t so easily impressed by a handsome face and a strong, masculine body. Nor would she swoon just because she had been kissed until she
almost lost all ability to reason. No, none of those things would deter her from thinking he was just a rake, a man of no substance, to whom no sensible woman would give a second thought.
She placed her hands firmly on her hips and tilted her head to emphasise just how much he was not affecting her. ‘Well, Lucy no longer performs at the Limelight Theatre. But that doesn’t mean you can just burst into the dressing room of any woman you choose and…and…’ She waved her hand in the direction of the place where he had taken her in his arms.
‘And kiss her.’ He sent her another devilish smile. ‘You’re right, that was a terrible affront to your virtue and I apologise if I upset you.’
Good, at least he had the decency to apologise, but that charming smile seemed to make a lie to any claim of regret.
‘Just because I’m an actress doesn’t mean you can treat me disrespectfully. People make all sorts of assumptions about actresses and they’re just plain wrong. Most of us are respectable women who take our art form seriously.’ It was an argument she had also had with her father, but it had fallen on deaf ears.
He nodded his agreement. ‘Yes, I know, and I can see that you are a talented actress. I saw your performance tonight, very impressive.’
Arabella’s hands left her hips. Her body relaxed and she couldn’t help but beam with pleasure as warmth rushed through her. ‘You saw my performance tonight? Really? And you enjoyed it? It’s only a small part, but I do appear in every scene and have lines in most of them.’ She was burbling, but couldn’t stop herself, it was so delightful that he had noticed her on stage.
‘You’re a natural. And you certainly gave a stunning performance here in the dressing room, too. I’ve never been kissed with such conviction by a total stranger.’
The warmth engulfing her turned to a fiery blush, exploding on her cheeks. ‘Well, you…you…caught me off guard. I was still in character. I was still acting. I was continuing to act as if I was still on stage. That was all.’
He gave a mock frown. ‘Didn’t you play a vestal virgin in tonight’s play?’
Arabella shrugged, her cheeks still burning. ‘Anyway, that doesn’t explain why you pretended to be my fiancé,’ she said sharply, hoping to move the conversation away from her overly enthusiastic response to his kiss.
He rubbed the back of his neck again. ‘I’m sorry about that as well. At the time my choices were, become engaged or become the victim of a violent crime. And engagement seemed the less painful option.’ He grimaced slightly. ‘Forgive me, but I have no intention of marrying anyone.’
Arabella flicked her hand to dismiss his excuses. ‘I’m not stupid. I realise that. And I have no interest in getting engaged either and even less interest in being married. It’s all my father’s idea. He wants me off the stage and married before he returns to America. It doesn’t matter who my husband-to-be is, or what he’s like, as long as he’s got a title. It seems you fit the bill.’
He stared at her, his brow furrowed, concern in his eyes. ‘And what of your mother? What does she have to say about this?’
Arabella gave a little shrug and ignored the hard lump that had formed in her chest. ‘My mother is dead.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ He placed his hand lightly on her arm.
She shrugged again. ‘It was a long time ago. Twenty-one years.’
He gave her an intense look and she could see him gauging her age and doing the calculations. Yes, she was twenty-one and, yes, her mother had died mere months after she was born, leaving her in the care of a man who had little interest in his daughter. And that lack of interest had continued throughout her life. It was only now that he could see how much use a daughter would be for advancing his position in both English and New York society that she had suddenly become something worth having.
‘That must have been very hard for you,’ he said.
Arabella shook her head. ‘Well, I’m sure if she was alive, she wouldn’t want her daughter married off to just any man. But my father doesn’t care who I marry and he’s not going to relent until I’ve got a title. But that doesn’t have to be your problem.’
He raised his eyebrows and looked towards the door, then back at Arabella and exhaled loudly. His look appeared to be saying that, for now, it was his problem as well.
‘When does your father intend to return to America?’
‘As soon as he gets me married off, which he’s going to want to do as quickly as possible. He’s already been away from his precious bank for over a month. I doubt if he’ll be able to bear to stay away much longer. He’s already starting to pine for the smell of freshly minted dollar bills.’
He tapped a thoughtful finger against his sensual lips. ‘Then leave this to me. I think I can save both of us from an unwanted marriage, while getting your father off your back for the foreseeable
future and saving my valuable body parts from dismemberment, all at the same time.’