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Excerpt from Oh What A (Wedding) Night

(Brazen Brides, Book 3)

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 At night the invisible line of demarcation between the City of London and its East End became more pronounced as the narrow streets east of Aldgate took on an eerie sinisterness. Even the sounds were different here in the East End than those emanating from the solid edifices of The City. Cackles induced by too much gin, incessant crying of unwanted babies, and coarse solicitations from flea-bitten whores were as intrinsic to this neighborhood as its rickety, bulging buildings. Here, human life held no value. Cutthroats would kill a man for two pence.

Which was one reason why William Birmingham never went east of Aldgate at night without a weapon.

On his normal nocturnal forays to the docks where the Birmingham yacht was moored he was accompanied by a virtual army of his family’s trusted guards.

Tonight he came alone.

MacIver had requested that he do so. And when thousands of pounds were at stake, William could be commanded, especially since MacIver was one of the few men he trusted.

As William neared the docklands tavern where he would meet MacIver, he patted his coat and was oddly comforted by the steely feel of his pistol. The very threat of danger accelerated the thump of his heartbeat. In a good way. While his brothers made their fortunes taking risks on the stock market or in staid banking circles, William thrived on risking his own life and limb. He courted adventure with the same fervor that guided Nick and Adam to seek ever-higher interest rates. Nothing could induce him to settle down with the family business on Threadneedle Street. Not when he could help the Birmingham coffers in capitals throughout Europe--or in seedy little taverns in London’s East End.

The Howling Hound public house -- aptly named for its raucous noises -- was located a hundred yards from the docks and had long been a favorite haunt of sailors. William circled the tavern’s exterior twice, looking for any shadowed figures lurking in doorways. Once he was satisfied he was not walking into a trap, he dismounted to wait outside the tavern for MacIver.

He did not expect danger, but a rich man must be careful in this neighborhood. William had chosen to disguise his wealth by covering his finely tailored clothing with a worn, outmoded greatcoat that did little to protect him from the January chill. He would not, however, concede to riding a nag. Had he need for a fast getaway, he wished to be assured of a fleet-footed beast.

Mellow yellow light from the tavern’s window spilled onto the dirt street outside, and the night was filled with the sound of foghorns and cockney voices alternately arguing and laughing lustily. Before two minutes had passed, MacIver came swaggering up to him. Neither man spoke until the gap between them was less than an arm’s length.

“‘Tis good to see ye’ve followed me instructions to a tee, Mr. Birmingham,” the older man said.

“Only because you’ve earned my trust.”

MacIver’s eyes narrowed as he peered into the Howling Hound, then lowered his voice. “Let us move away a wee bit.”

The two men strode into the middle of the street. William could barely see his companion’s craggy face in the night’s misty darkness. “You’ve got the bullion?”

“Aye, but we’ve got to be careful. What with the cutthroats and the authorities, a gent can’t be too careful.”

“Then you won’t be able to deliver it to my brother’s bank?” William asked.

MacIver shook his head. “Not for this transaction, guv’nah.”

William’s brows dipped. “Have you not been well paid in the past?”

“Aye, but I’m merely a go-between this time.”

This time? William could not believe that MacIver had ever been anything but a go-between, a bridge from the smugglers to the Birminghams, England’s wealthiest family. He shrugged. “It’s of no importance how we get it to my brother. As you know, my family does not lack for safe conveyances and well-armed guards.”

“Aye. That’s what will be needed now.” MacIver lowered his raspy voice. “This shipment is considerably more valuable than the others.”

“How much more valuable?”

“Eighty thousand pounds.”

Considerably more valuable, indeed. William tamped down his excitement and spoke casually in his cultured voice. “How do we take possession?”

“Ye must wait until yer contacted.”

MacIver’s methods had changed. The man had previously been too greedy to trust anyone else. Of course, previous bullion shipments had never exceeded twenty thousand pounds. “And who will be contacting me?” William asked.

“A . . . lady.”

“And how will I know this . . . lady?”

“She will be lovely, and her name is Isadore.”

 Chapter 1

 “I’d rather be dead than wed.” Lady Sophia glanced down at the solid earth some forty feet below and was sickeningly aware of how close she was to fulfilling her statement. She prayed the ledge upon which she stood would not give way.

“But ye are wed, milady!”

Depend on her pragmatic maid to take things so utterly literally. “Wed, but not bed -- and I believe that is a vastly important distinction.”

Her maid snorted.

Flattening herself against the wall, Lady Sophia inched toward the corner of the building.

“I’m shaking so hard I fear I’ll tumble to me death,” Dottie said. “Ye know how fearful I am of heights.”

“No one held a pistol to your head and forced you to come out that window with me.” Why must she always speak so flippantly in grave situations? Seriously, Sophia wouldn’t at all like to see her trusted servant splattered on the gravel simply because she herself had made the dreadful mistake of marrying Lord Finkel that very afternoon.

“I’ve been with ye since the day ye was born, and I’ll not leave ye now. Besides, I didn’t want to be around when yer bridegroom discovers ye’ve fled. The servants say Lord Finkel has a fierce temper.”

Finkie? A fierce temper? Sophia could hardly credit it. An affable baboon was closer to the mark. Why oh why had she ever consented to wed the bore? Perhaps because he was titled, terribly handsome, paid uncommon homage to her beauty -- and had protected her sister’s reputation. In what was undoubtedly the most moronic moment of her life she had decided that being Finkie’s marchioness was preferable to being a spinster of the advanced age of seven and twenty.

That was before he kissed her. The only physical reaction his most unsatisfactory kiss elicited in her was nausea. Because of the kippers. Lord Finkel’s breath smelled -- and tasted -- distinctly of kippers.

And that bit of knowledge added to the tusk business sent her packing her bags before he had the opportunity to offend any more of her senses.

In all fairness to Lord Finkel, it wasn’t his fault about the tusk business. It only happened that once -- the day his valet was abed with fever and had been unable to shave the tufts of nasal hair that protruded from each of Finkie’s nostrils like a pair of elephant tusks. But still, whenever she thought of Lord Finkel after that she had been unable to dispel the vision of those dark brown tusks jutting from his nose.

All of this made her seem excessively shallow and unduly sensitive to sensory assaults. Which she really couldn’t deny. But there was something else about Finkie that put her off, though she could not express it any more than she understood it. She supposed it all boiled down to the fact that -- try as she might -- she could not admire the man. He was even more shallow than she!

If she and Dottie could just make it to the corner of the building, they could lower themselves onto the steep roof of the orangery and from there could shimmy down to the shrubs. “Should you like me to hold your hand?” Sophia offered.

Dottie sucked in her breath. “No, please. I beg you, don’t touch me!” Her maid’s voice quivered with terror.

Curling her toes and gripping the stone wall, Sophia ever so slightly swivelled her head to face Dottie, but the night was so inky black she could not see her. “Then allow me to take your valise--or should I say, Lord Finkel’s valise. Then I’ll be balanced with a valise in each hand.”

“I ’av a better idea.”

Her maid’s utterance was followed by the distant thump of the valise hitting the ground.

“A very good idea.” Lady Sophia let go of her own valise. “Oh, dear,” she whispered, “I do hope no one heard the noise.”

“If they did look out the window,” Dottie said in a low voice, “they’d likely not see anything to rouse suspicion.”

Of course. Dottie was always right. (A pity Sophia had not listened to her when she disparaged Lord Finkel.) Anyone who may have heard the noise would be looking for people, which they wouldn’t see because these people were still flapping against a wall three floors up.

“You don’t suppose his lordship will ’av me arrested for stealing his valise?” Dottie asked.

“I daresay he won’t even miss it. Had he need of it, it wouldn’t have been just sitting there quite empty in his library. You must own, it looks a bit tawdry for a man of Lord Finkel’s extravagant taste.”

“Aye, that it does.”

Soon Sophia reached the corner of the edifice and negotiated a turn, relieved to see the silvery looking top of the orangery. She drew a deep breath and lowered herself until she was sitting upon its roof. A moment later, a trembling Dottie joined her. “What now, milady?”

“We’re going to scoot to the lowest part, then climb down those yews.”

“Ye’ll get yer cape filthy -- if ye don’t break yer lovely neck.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic. The hardest part’s behind us,” Sophia called over her shoulder as she pushed off. Somewhere between the apex of the glass building and the yew trees which skimmed its side, she wondered how long a bridegroom would wait for his bride to prepare for bed. Would Finkie be pounding upon her door yet? Or worse still, would he be using his considerable strength to tear it down? She needed no greater impetus than the vision of her exceedingly strong bridegroom – enraged -- to send her sprawling into the yew branches. Rip. She winced at the damage to her silk dress but scurried down the tree, grateful her gloves protected her hands.

While Dottie gathered up her courage to follow her mistress, Sophia collected the two valises, but when she returned, Dottie just sat atop the glass building whimpering. “I can’t.”

Sophia drew an impatient breath. “If I can do it, you can. I assure you, this is a most sturdy tree.”

“But it don’t have limbs like a proper tree. I fear I’ll topple on me head.”

“You put your feet first,” Sophia said through clenched teeth. “And I beg that you hurry. We really must be away from Upton Manor when Lord Finkel discovers me gone.”

The maid eased each dangling leg over the roofline. “I can’t.”

“Just leap onto the tree and slide down. That tree’s not going anywhere. Besides, I’ll be right here to catch you if you fail.” Sophia came to stand directly beneath her maid.

That seemed to ease Dottie’s fears.

A moment later, amid a great deal of whining and gasping, the maid’s feet touched solid ground, and the two women began to tread across the frosty grass of Upton Manor.

Sophia sighed, her breath forming a cloud in the frigid air. “A pity I didn’t get married in the summer.”

“Why do you say that, milady?” Dottie asked, breathlessly.

“Because tonight must be the coldest night of the year.”

“Aye, it’s blustery, all right, but at least it’s not snowing.”

“A good thing, too. Our tracks would be devilishly hard to erase in the snow, and I shouldn’t like for Lord Finkel to find me and bring me back.”

“He’s sure to go to the posting inn in Knotworth.”

“That is why we shall go to the posting inn north of Knotworth. He will, quite naturally, be expecting me to return to London.”

“We aren’t going to Lunnon?”

“Of course we’re going to London.”

“Yer too clever for me. Clever ye were, too, to ’av us dress in black so we’ll blend in with the night, but why did you insist on me wearing one of yer lovely gowns?”

“Because Lord Finkel is sure to send servants searching for me, and they will quite naturally be seeking a well-born lady traveling with her maid. I have therefore decided that we will travel as sisters, and I shan’t wish for anyone to suspect that I’m anything other than a genteel lady of middle class.”

“I won’t tell anyone yer a fine lady.”

“Of course you won’t. You’re to be a mute.”

“One of them people who can’t speak?” There was a smidgeon of outrage in Dottie’s voice.


* * *

He had waited a very long time to make Lady Sophia his own. He could scarcely believe his good fortune. For years every eligible bachelor in the ton had begged for her hand in marriage, but it was he who had been so singularly honored. He alone possessed the three things that had endeared himself to the beautiful lady: his title, his good looks, and his ability to protect her sister’s good name.

Lady Sophia need never know she had been one of dozens he had duped or betrayed over the years, nor did she need to know his greatest source of income came from his arrangement with the publisher Smith. Because of his own exalted position, Lord Finkel possessed all manner of information that wealthy aristocrats would pay handsomely to prevent from being published. The prevention of one particular piece relating to Lady Sophia’s younger sister had won him Lady Sophia’s profound gratitude.

Now he had what he’d always wanted. His wife was beautiful, came with a large dowry, and in a few minutes he would slake his intense hunger for her between two smooth, ivory thighs.

The very thought aroused him.

But what in the hell was taking her so bloody long to ready for bed? She had said she would come to his room through the dressing room that linked her chambers to his. During the hour he had waited, he had schooled himself to be patient. He had anticipated this night for years. A few minutes more would not matter.

He strode angrily across the carpet of his bedchamber, yanked the stopper off a decanter of Madeira, poured himself a glass, and drank it in one long swig. This wasn’t how he'd planned this night. Knowing his bride was a virgin, he had intended to relax her with a glass of wine as they cozied up on the settee by his fire while he touched her in places that would have her begging to be carried to his bed.

Now the scenario would change.

He was much too hungry for her to waste time on foreplay, and he was so angry that a swift deflowering would give him great pleasure. Cursing under his breath, he began to pace the carpet.

Another half hour passed. Damn, but he could be the gentleman no longer! He rushed to his dressing room and stormed through it, throwing open the door to his wife’s bedchamber. His eye went straight to the large tester bed that was draped in emerald silk. It was empty. His gaze circled the silent room.

Not a soul in sight.

Was the damn wench still in her dressing room? He stalked to the door and swung it open. The gown she had worn that day puddled on the floor, but neither its owner nor her maid where anywhere in sight.

What the hell? Seized by a blinding fury, he reentered her bedchamber and scanned the sumptuous room. A piece of parchment was propped up on the gilt escritoire. His brows scrunched down, he stalked to the desk and began to read.

Dear Lord Finkel,

I’ve had a change of heart. I do not wish to be your wife. Please don’t try to bring me back. I shall consult with my brother. Perhaps he can propose an agreeable manner in which we can dissolve this marriage. I’m truly sorry.


A scalding, thundering rage bolted through him. He sure as hell was going to bring her back! She was his, by God. If he had to rape her, he’d make her his. He returned to his chamber and rang for a servant.

When his puzzled valet appeared, Lord Finkel spit out his orders. “Gather up all the footmen and have them meet me in the library.”

He swiftly dressed and went downstairs to the book-lined chamber. As soon as he took a seat behind his desk, he glanced at the floor and realized his valise was not there where he always kept it. His heart pounding, he leaped to his feet and began to search the room. But the bag was gone.

The first servant who entered the room had to bear his wrath. “Who in the hell’s taken my gray valise?”

“I couldn’t say, my lord.”

Lord Finkel pounded his desk. “Evans! Come here at once.”

A few seconds later the panting butler entered the library. “My lord?”

“My valise is gone!” Lord Finkel said. “Do you know anything about it?”

“No, my lord.”

One of a pair of youthful footmen who came striding into the chamber answered him. “I believe your wife’s maid had it, my lord.”

“My wife’s maid?” Lord Finkel thundered. “Why in the hell didn’t you take it from her?”

The footman shrugged. “’Twern’t my place. I thought — because it was shabby like — you’d given it to the lady.”

He would gladly kill the bitch. And her mistress, too. His mouth set firmly, his voice grim, he appraised the room full of servants. “The woman is a thief. She and . . . Lady Finkel have disappeared with my valise. I want all of them back. Whichever of you finds the . . . ladies will be rewarded handsomely.”

* * *

Several hours later Sophia and Dottie, so exhausted they could barely set one foot in front of the other, exclaimed at the sight of the welcome lantern glow that illuminated the exterior of the posting inn at Shelton. It had been more than two hours since they had seen a single halo of light — not even a carriage lamp. Which was really not surprise. Only a lunatic would brave these muddy country roads at night during a wretched rain storm.

More than once during the miserable trek Sophia had asked herself if she would have gone out Lord Finkel’s window had she known that she would have to brave so savage a storm. No sooner had they cleared Upton Manor than thunder began to rumble and prodigious amounts of rain started to pound down upon them. Her merino cape was of little protection against the deluge. Indeed, not even the linen shift closest to her body remained dry. Her wet boots rubbed big, raw blisters on her feet. And she had never been so cold in her entire life. Despite all the physical discomforts, though, she thought she would rather be traipsing through a blizzard than be in Lord Finkel’s bed — beneath him.

Voices filled the livery stable, and the inn yard was crammed with conveyances. It was just her luck that on the night she fled Finkie’s bed the tiny village of Shelton had become a Mecca for aborted London-bound travelers. Before she and Dottie ever proceeded through the aged timber door of the Prickly Pig she knew there would not be an available room.

She only hoped they could find a dry spot to wait for the morning post chaise -- if the innkeeper did not toss out the pair of bedraggled women. She clutched Dottie’s bony forearm. “Remember, you are not to speak.” Then she threw open the door.

The blazing fire that warmed the room was a far more welcome sight than the forty or more persons — all men and all gaping at her — who crammed into the small chamber.

She flipped off the hood of her cape and held her head high as she regally strode to an aproned man who looked as if he could be the innkeeper. “My sister and I should like chambers,” she said.

Roars of laughter greeted her words. Her first thought was that everyone knew Dottie was not her sister, then she realized they could not possibly know such a thing. Therefore, they must be laughing at the improbability of her securing a room on such a night as this.

“I’m sorry, miss. We’re full up tonight,” the man said in a kindly voice. He no doubt took pity on the deranged woman who stood before him soaked from head to toe.

She sighed. “If you could just secure a dry corner for us to wait until the morning post chaise . . .”

The innkeeper shrugged. “I’m sorry, miss, but this taproom’s the only place.”

She favored him with a radiant smile. Since she had left the school room (long ago) she had discovered that a smile from Lady Sophia Devere was as treasured by men as a gift of shiny guineas. As she stood there smiling insipidly, her gaze flicked to the jagged tears in her costly cape and to the mud-encrusted boots. She ran a hand through her dark locks. It was rather like petting a wet duck. How perfectly UNappealing she must look! Even if she was flashing her best smile. Heaven help her if he took her for a doxie.

“I’ll see if I can find two more chairs,” he said, disappearing behind a swinging door.

She drew a sigh of relief that he’d not thought her a loose woman.

A moment later he returned with a spindleless chair in each hand. “I’ll sit you ladies in the corner and bring you some ’ot tea.”

“We would be exceedingly grateful,” Sophia said.

During the next hour as she sat there unable to talk to Dottie because of Dottie’s orders not to reply, Lady Sophia took the opportunity to observe the drunken men who surrounded them. They must be servants of the persons of quality who no doubt were fast asleep in comfortable beds upstairs. Though she was seven and twenty years of age and considered herself a woman of the world, Sophia had never before been in a room full of low-born men.

At the very instant she came to that realization, an exceedingly well dressed man came striding into the taproom, with an older, less elegantly dressed man tagging behind him. No doubt, his valet. He tossed off his dripping great coat, handed it to the man on his heels, and scanned the room, his gaze flitting past Sophia before he made eye contact with the innkeeper and began to address him.

The room was so noisy Sophia could not hear what the man said, but she could not seem to remove her gaze from him. Without the enormous coat, he was uncommonly handsome. Though he was a gentleman from his starchy cravat to the tips of his shiny Hessians (which, unlike Sophia’s boots, were NOT muddy), there was a ruggedness about him. She could see him striding the bow of a pirate ship with broadsword in hand, his golden hair waving in the breeze, his exceedingly wide shoulders straining against a creamy linen shirt. His skin glowed with a healthy summer-like tan despite that it was the dead of winter.

She watched as the innkeeper solemnly shook his head, and the handsome newcomer nodded. A moment later, still standing at the bar, he tossed down a bumper of ale.

To keep from staring at the handsome man, she lifted the curtain to peer out the window. Her heart nearly exploded at what she saw. Two men whose Finkel livery showed beneath their gaping coats were handing their horses to an ostler. “Come, Dottie, quickly,” she commanded as she whipped out of her chair and strode to the bar to stand beside the Adonis. “Well met, sir. I’ve been searching for you,” she said boldly to the well dressed man.

He set down his drink and turned to regard her. She was careful to keep her back to the door while yanking Dottie’s arm so that she would do the same. Remembering her torn clothing, she prayed he would not mistake her for a trollop.

His very green eyes raked over her, and it was a moment before he replied. “Then you must be Isadore.”

It was several seconds before she found her voice. “Indeed I am, and this is my elder sister, Dorothea, who is a mute.”

She prayed Isadore was NOT a trollop.

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