The viscount had told Amanda that she must never call on him at his hotel. Discretion was paramount, for if his family were to learn of his intentions, they would do everything in their power to stop him from marrying her. She was nobody, after all—a mere secretary. But what did that matter when he loved her?
Wait for me at the church tomorrow, he’d said. Bring a valise, nothing else. We will set sail at sunset as husband and wife!
She sat now on a stone pew in the Anglican church. A few feet away, the curate, Mr. Rogers, pulled out his pocket watch. She pretended not to notice his speaking look.
Her stomach was twisting into knots.
They had waited over three hours now. The light from the stained-glass windows had begun to retreat toward the damp stone walls.
She leapt to her feet. “Just one more minute, sir!” She could not bear to hear Mr. Roger’s next words. Could not bear to hear him draw the obvious conclusion. “Just another minute, please! I know he will come.”
How could he not? After so many weeks spent paralyzed by fear—enduring indignities that no self-respecting woman should accept—she had finally mustered the backbone to flee her employer. Light-headed, knees shaking, she had crept out of Madam’s villa this afternoon. And did that courage not make her deserving of a happy ending? He must come!
“I am very sorry,” said Mr. Rogers. “But you understand, I have . . . duties. At the consulate.”
“But there must have been an accident!” That was the only explanation. “We must look for him!”
Mr. Rogers sighed.
He thought she had been jilted.
But he was wrong. He had never seen how tenderly the viscount treated her!
“Very well,” she said, “do go to the consulate, sir! Tell the consul that the viscount has gone missing! Have him send out a search party. And I . . . I will go to his hotel to see what they know!”
His lordship must have taken ill. Or had tripped, struck his head, and slipped into unconsciousness! But he was even now being seen to by the hotel doctor, who would nurse him back to health. Nothing else could account for his failure to appear today, because he was madly in love with her. He had loved her from first sight, in that spice market in Constantinople. He had followed her here to Syra specifically to woo her. He would not abandon her now! He could not!
For if he did . . . it would mean her ruin. She would be stranded, penniless, two thousand miles from England. Her erstwhile employer’s ship was even now setting sail.
Amanda flew up the broad, crimson-carpeted staircase of the Hotel de Ville, her valise clutched in her arms. Ladies descending in fine satin dinner gowns, gentlemen in top hats, looked at her curiously as she passed. Perhaps they wondered at her carrying her own luggage. Or perhaps she looked awkward in her finery—for this gown was the most luxurious thing she had ever owned, dripping with white lace and seed pearls, paid for by the viscount himself. Who had not abandoned her!
In the main lobby, the bright chatter of well-heeled travelers rang against the domed ceiling above. By the concierge’s desk, five or six gentlemen were conversing, hands flying, faces red. Two of them wore the crimson sashes of the governor’s police.
It was not a sight to encourage a lady. But Amanda’s concern left no room for hesitation. She had to find the viscount, for if she didn’t . . .
After tucking her valise behind a potted palm, she took a breath for courage and walked into the men’s midst. “Sirs, I beg your pardon. Which of you is the concierge?”
Nobody paid attention to her. They were bent on their argument. “Impossible,” said the shortest of the lot, a stoop-shouldered man with a heavy Scottish accent. He adjusted his wire spectacles with a force suggestive of great impatience. “I am telling you, we would never support such a charade! And our guests will not bear interrogation!”
“I quite agree,” harrumphed another, a pale and portly Frenchman with sweat beading his brow. “You must take this up with the consul. He will see to it.”
Amanda, turning, found the source of this icy pronouncement: a tall, dark gentleman whose face gave her a visceral shock. He was beyond handsome; she had not known such a man existed outside the pages of Gothic novels. His bone structure was sharp and strong, his eyes nearly as black as his hair.
His full lips twisted into a scornful smile as he continued. “Yet it will prove less convenient for you, I think, when I have this hotel closed for collusion in fraud.”
This threat was met with silence. It was not the ideal opening, but Amanda would take it. Quickly she spoke. “I seek the concierge! It’s a matter of great urgency!”
All eyes swung to her. Several brows lifted. “I am he,” said the short man in spectacles. “But as you see, I am presently engaged—”
“But I fear something dreadful has happened to one of your guests! Viscount Ripton—he stays here, does he not?”
The collective intake of breath startled her. And then all the men inched away—save the dark one. He stepped closer.
He was not smiling any longer.
“The Viscount Ripton, you say.” His eyes (they could not truly be black, could they?) trailed down her body, a rude intimacy that made her spine stiffen.
How predictable. The handsome ones were always the worst boors.
She lifted her chin. She had grown accustomed, in her time, to the impertinent looks of men who fancied themselves her betters. But she was finished with being cowed and humbled. Besides, she was dressed at present in a gown that could rival a queen’s! This blackguard had no call to think he might look at her so lewdly. “Yes,” she said. “The Viscount Ripton, my betrothed.” So mind your manners, cad!
The man lifted one elegantly shaped brow. “How curious.” Stripping off his gloves and tossing them to the startled man at his left, he came prowling toward her.
By a great effort, she stood her ground. “It is not a matter of curiosity but concern! I fear he has been brought to a bad end!” And so would she be, if she did not find him. She wheeled toward the concierge. “Please tell me—have you seen him today?”
The concierge blinked at her, then looked onward toward the blackguard.
Everyone was looking at the blackguard.
Foreboding slipped down her spine like a drop of ice water.
The dark man gave her a slow, unpleasant smile. “Miss . . . what is your name?”
Obviously he was somebody important. Certainly he was rich; that was clear from his casual arrogance, and the jeweled stickpin at his throat, and even the fit of his greatcoat, which hewed expertly to his tall, broad-shouldered frame. The dark wool gleamed in the low light: expensive wool, the very finest.
His hair gleamed, too. Black as a crow’s wing, it caught the light.
The smile on his full lips was sharpening. He was not, she decided, the sort of man whom a wise woman engaged without cause.
“We have not been introduced,” she said. Giving her back to him, she addressed a new man—the Frenchman. “The viscount is a guest here, isn’t he?”
“The—the viscount—” The Frenchman’s voice squeaked like a girl’s. He glanced beyond her and visibly shuddered. “—is right behind you.”
“What?” Heart soaring, she turned. But the viscount was nowhere to be seen. And everyone else was gaping at her.
Save the blackguard, who tipped his head slightly. “How good to meet you,” he said. “Shall we take a walk? I will be very interested to learn of when I proposed that we marry.”
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This novella opens the Rules for the Reckless series (which continues with my single-title release on January 29, 2013, That Scandalous Summer). The books are stand-alones insofar as you don’t need to read them in chronological order, but the characters in the series weave in and out of each other’s lives in curious and unexpected ways.
My editor mentioned that the heroine of Your Wicked Heart was my first “English rose,” and it’s true: Amanda is kind, honorable, and earnest, and she looks, in my imagination, like Little Bo Peep. Now, if you’ve read my other books, you’ll know that this is not the usual mold for my heroines. Indeed, in the normal course, Amanda’s sunny disposition would be sufficient cause for me to cook up some Major Angst for her journey. However, Amanda also has a tart sense of humor, a backbone that doesn’t quit, and a very bad run of luck in the course of her Great Adventure...so I decided that Viscount Ripton would be affliction enough. Happily, he proved more than willing to goad, provoke, and seduce her (and, ultimately, fall in love with her. Er...I hope that doesn’t count as a spoiler).
This is the first novella I’ve written, and before I sat down to write it, several kind souls cautioned me that the shorter format required careful pre-planning. Alas, I’m not a plotter, and although I did my best to plan the story in advance, it ended up turning into a slightly different tale than I’d intended. However, and much to my pleasure, the shorter length felt freeing! I wrote this novella at a faster clip (and with far less late-night agonizing) than any book to date. I also (as always, sigh) wrote far beyond my allotted word-count; the novella was meant to be 20,000 words, and the final manuscript is around 40,000 words, all of which I adore.
As I hope you’ll be able to sense while reading it, this story was tremendous fun to write. I have become an official fan of the novella form!
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