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Ruining Miss Wrotham
Eleanor Wrotham has sworn off overbearing men, but she needs a man’s help—and the man who steps forward is as domineering as he is dangerous: the notorious Mordecai Black.
The illegitimate son of an earl, Mordecai is infamous for his skill with women. His affairs are legendary—but few people realize that Mordecai has rules, and one of them is: Never ruin a woman.
But if Mordecai helps Miss Wrotham, she will be ruined.
July 15th, 1812
Nell Wrotham had two godmothers. One had given her a bible when she was christened and a copy of Fordyce’s Sermons for Young Women when she turned twelve. Her father had insisted that Nell read the sermons and she had dutifully obeyed.
Nell’s second godmother hadn’t given her a gift yet and Nell’s father hadn’t known about her, because that godmother was a Faerie and her existence was a deep, dark secret. Her name was Baletongue and she would only come once, on Nell’s twenty-third birthday, and when she came she would grant Nell one wish.
Nell was wishing as the stagecoach she sat in rattled towards London. She was wishing that her twenty-third birthday had been yesterday, or perhaps today, or at the very latest, tomorrow. But it wasn’t. She still had a week to wait.
She sat on the lumpy seat, pressed close by a stout widow on one side and an even stouter attorney’s clerk on the other. Nell’s fingers were neatly folded over her reticule, her expression calm, her agitation hidden. A well-bred lady never shows her emotions—one of the many maxims drilled into her by her father. Her father, whose rigid, unforgiving righteousness was at the root of this disaster.
Nell clutched her reticule more tightly and wished for the thousandth time that her birthday was sooner—and prayed that when her Faerie godmother finally came it wouldn’t be too late.
Mordecai Black reached London as the clocks were striking noon. The streets were dusty and the traffic sluggish. The air trapped between the buildings had a fetid undertone. He drew the curricle to a halt outside the Golden Cross Inn, thrust the reins at his groom, and jumped down.
The inn’s yard thronged with porters and passengers, all of them hot and sweaty and irritable, but Mordecai had no difficulty traversing the crowd. People looked at him and prudently stepped aside.
The taproom was busy, the coffee room slightly less so. “Your master?” he asked a serving-man.
Mordecai followed the man’s directions and found the innkeeper in a stuffy back office, bent over a ledger, tallying rows of numbers.
“The stagecoach from Bath that arrived this morning . . . are any of the passengers putting up here?”
The innkeeper looked up with a scowl on his brow, clearly annoyed by the interruption. He opened his mouth, took in Mordecai’s size—and thought better of what he’d been about to say.
“A woman arrived this morning from Bath,” Mordecai said. “Traveling alone. Is she staying here?”
“There was a woman.” The innkeeper put aside his quill and reached for a smaller ledger. Not accounts, but room allocations. He ran his finger down the entries and halted at one.
Mordecai’s heart began to beat faster, a drumbeat of hope and nervousness. He was acutely aware of the document tucked into his breast pocket.
“Mrs. Webster,” the innkeeper said. “Yes, she’s putting up here.”
“It’s Miss Wrotham I’m looking for.”
The innkeeper closed the ledger. “Then she is staying elsewhere.”
W, Mordecai thought. Wrotham. Webster. “What does she look like? Young, slim, dark brown hair?”
“I wouldn’t call her young,” the innkeeper said. “Or slim.”
Mordecai’s hopeful nervousness evaporated. In its place was a feeling that was part unease, part worry. He went outside to speak with the porters. Half a crown each and a glance at his face bought him their full attention.
Some days it annoyed him that his appearance intimidated people; today it was useful, but only one porter had noticed Miss Wrotham. None of them had seen her leave the inn’s yard.
Mordecai drove to Grosvenor Square, avoiding the other carriages by habit, scarcely noticing the landmarks. How the devil was he to find Miss Wrotham in a city the size of London?
The curricle rattled into the great square and there, on the far side, was his townhouse, a towering edifice with columns and a Palladian pediment and four rows of windows rising one above the other. Lord Dereham’s house until eight months ago, and now Dereham’s bastard’s house. He’d heard the linkboys call it that—Dereham’s bastard’s house—not as a slur on his character, but merely acknowledging the truth of his birth: Dereham’s natural son. Dereham’s bastard.
Mordecai drew the curricle to a halt and clambered stiffly down. The hours he’d spent on the road were catching up with him: the journey to Bath, the journey back again, no rest in between.
“Take it round to the stables,” he told the groom. “Have the rest of the day off.”
The curricle clattered away over the cobblestones, but Mordecai didn’t climb the steps to his front door.
Miss Wrotham was somewhere in London. Alone.
Mordecai stripped off his gloves and rubbed his face, felt grit and sweat and stubble. He needed food, a shave, a cold bath, fresh clothes. And maybe a nap.
He turned on his heel and stared across the square, seeing tall buildings, hazy rooftops, chimneys. The city seemed suddenly full of dangers. He felt a twinge of fear—an emotion he was unused to. He stood six foot five and weighed two hundred pounds and he knew how to fight, he was good at fighting, but Miss Wrotham was none of those things. And she was female, and alone in London without friends or protectors, and she had no experience of abbesses and cutpurses and bullyboys.
The sense of fear became stronger, laced with anxiety. Where the blazes is she?
Behind him, he heard his front door open. Mordecai looked around. His butler peered down the steps at him. “Sir?”
“I’m going for a walk.”
He went to Halfmoon Street, five minutes’ fast walk from Grosvenor Square. The Dalrymples’ house was closed and shuttered, the knocker removed from the door—they were away, but Miss Wrotham must have known that; the Dalrymples were her cousins and she knew as well as anyone that they spent every summer in the country. So why had she come to London, and how the devil was he to find her?
Mordecai hesitated on the doorstep of the shuttered house, sweating, tired, worried. God, it was warm in London, the air close and still and sticky, no breeze to ease the heat.
He loosened his neckcloth and rubbed his face again, stubble rasping under his hand. There was one other person Miss Wrotham knew in London.
Mordecai strode around to Berkeley Square telling himself that he was a fool, that the last person Miss Wrotham would visit was Roger—the man had jilted her, for God’s sake!
Halfmoon Street to Berkeley Square took all of two minutes. Mordecai’s pace slowed when he neared Roger’s house. It was a handsome building, but not as handsome as his own townhouse, nor as large.
He wondered what the linkboys called it.
Mordecai halted at the foot of the steps. A fool’s errand, this. Roger won’t know, and if he did, he’d delight in not telling me. And then he felt the prickling anxiety again. He touched his fingertips to the marriage license in his breast pocket, took a deep breath, and climbed the steps of the new Lord Dereham’s house.
The butler opened the door.
“Afternoon, Bolger. My cousin in?”
The butler’s lips tightened at the word cousin, a tiny spasm of distaste. He looked as if he wished he had permission to close the door in Mordecai’s face. “Lord Dereham is at home, sir,” he said woodenly.
“I’ll see him.”
The entrance hall was similar to Mordecai’s own: the high ceiling molded and painted by Robert Adam, the long stretch of marble floor, the doors to dining room, drawing room, and library on either side, the staircase at the end. There the resemblance ended; Mordecai didn’t decorate his entrance hall with footmen. Vases were decoration, a Robert Adam ceiling was decoration, but his footmen were not. Roger’s footmen were, poor sods. Four of them stood in their curling wigs and gold-braided livery, two on either side of the hall, backs to the wall, chins up, eyes staring blankly ahead. Human statues. Mordecai almost snorted. Why in God’s name must he have one standing here all day, let alone four?
But he knew the answer: the footmen were because Roger liked to flaunt his wealth, and there were four because Roger liked symmetry. Two footmen would have been too few, and three or five unacceptable.
“Lord Dereham is momentarily occupied,” the butler said, his expression dyspeptic, as if Mordecai’s kinship to his master pained him as much as it pained Roger. “If you will step into the library, I shall inform him of your arrival.” He gave a stiff-necked nod, and one of the footmen sprang to open the library door.
Mordecai had taken half a dozen steps towards the library, wondering how long the butler and Roger would choose to keep him waiting, when the drawing room door opened abruptly and a young lady strode out. “―hiding behind excuses. A hen has more courage than you!”
He’d been truly and deeply surprised twice in his life. Once, when his father had come to claim him, and the second time when Henry Wright had stood up for him at Eton. This moment qualified as the third. He was so astonished that he gaped. Eleanor Wrotham was here? In Roger’s house?
“If you won’t help me, I’ll find someone who has the gumption to do so!” Miss Wrotham was magnificent in her scorn, eyes flashing, voice ringing, cheeks flushed.
And then he saw the tears trembling on her eyelashes. She wasn’t merely angry; she was upset.
Miss Wrotham didn’t see him. She crossed the entrance hall briskly, flung open the door before Bolger could reach it, and marched outside.
Roger emerged from the drawing room—red-faced and righteous, his blond hair sleek with pomade. Mordecai ignored his cousin. He strode after Miss Wrotham and shut the door firmly in Bolger’s face. “Miss Wrotham!” He took the steps two at a time.
Miss Wrotham halted on the flagway and glanced back. He saw surprise cross her face—a brief, wide-eyed flare of astonishment—and then the surprise snuffed out and she was once again her father’s daughter, haughty and aloof.
Mordecai stared down at her and knew in his bones that she was the one woman in all the world whom he was meant to marry. Not because of her appearance and her breeding—those had been Roger’s reason for offering for her—but because of what lay beneath those things: the clear-eyed intelligence, the suppressed passion, the spirit bursting to be free.
He trod down the last three steps. “I’ll help you,” he said. “Whatever it is, I’ll help.”
Miss Wrotham’s eyebrows lifted slightly. She looked him up and down.
Mordecai was suddenly acutely aware of what he must look like: sweaty, hulking, unshaven, dressed in clothes that had been elegant yesterday, but today were wrinkled and travel-stained.
He resisted the urge to tighten his neckcloth and brush the dust from his coat, but it was impossible not to feel embarrassed. Of all the ways he’d imagined meeting Miss Wrotham again, this wasn’t one of them. He felt a faint blush creep into his cheeks—and when was the last time he’d blushed? Years ago.
Mordecai endured her scrutiny, and wished he knew what Miss Wrotham thought of him. Not what she thought of his appearance—it was obvious what anyone would think of his appearance right now—but what she thought of him. Mordecai Black. Earl’s son. Bastard.
Society accepted him—his father’s sponsorship had seen to that—but not everyone liked him. Roger certainly didn’t. Miss Wrotham’s father—a high stickler—hadn’t either. He’d thought Mordecai unworthy of his daughter’s hand, but the man was dead now and the only opinion that mattered was Miss Wrotham’s. What did she think? Did those astute eyes see past his reputation as a rake? Did she see who he truly was?
Perhaps she did, because instead of turning away from him as a prudent and respectable young woman should, Miss Wrotham said, “I need to go to Seven Dials, but none of the jarveys will take me—they say it’s no place for a lady.”
Seven Dials? Mordecai stared at her in astonishment. “They’re correct.”
“Will you take me there, Mr. Black?”
“No.” He shook his head emphatically. “Absolutely not. If you have business there, allow me to go in your stead.”
“I have to go myself.”
“Seven Dials is little more than taverns and brothels,” Mordecai told her bluntly. “It’s not a place you should visit.”
“My sister’s there.” Miss Wrotham’s aloofness slipped. Desperation and urgency were clear to read on her face. “She’s in terrible trouble. She needs my help.”
Mordecai’s eyebrows lifted. The sister who’d plunged the Wrotham family into disgrace? Who’d ruined Miss Wrotham’s marriage prospects and caused Roger to jilt her? “Is this the sister who, er . . .” Ran off with a soldier.
“I have only one sister.”
And whatever that sister had done, Miss Wrotham obviously still cared about her.
Mordecai hesitated. If Miss Wrotham’s sister was in Seven Dials, then her fortunes had sunk very low. “I’ll bring her to you. It’s best that you don’t―”
“I’m going with you.”
“Mr. Black, you would terrify her!”
Mordecai felt himself flush. “I assure you that I’ll treat your sister with respect,” he said stiffly.
“It’s not that,” Miss Wrotham said, with an impatient wave of her hand. “Oh, don’t you see? You look dangerous, and she’s scared enough as it is . . . and I have to go with you. She’s my sister!”
Mordecai looked down at her and saw fierce determination on her face and stubbornness in the set of her chin—the spirit he’d admired last year, no longer suppressed but burning brightly. And then he thought of trying to persuade a frightened young woman who didn’t know him from Adam to trust him enough to get in a carriage with him. He grimaced inwardly.
“Please,” Miss Wrotham said, and she reached out and touched his arm, a gesture that was somehow both reckless and cautious at the same time, as if she thought that merely laying her hand on his sleeve might ruin her.
Mordecai’s awareness of her flared. The last of his resolve crumbled. He gave a reluctant nod. “We’ll go together.”
Relief and hope illuminated Miss Wrotham’s face—and then the urgency returned. She gripped his arm, her fingers digging deeply into his sleeve. “Can we go now? Where’s your carriage?”
“In the stables. A hackney will be quicker.”
“They’ll not refuse me.”