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Authors: Maggie MacKeever

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Cupid's Dart

BOOK: Cupid's Dart
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CUPID’S DART

 

Maggie MacKeever

 

Chapter One

 

The beach at Brighton was deserted, shortly after dawn. Waves murmured softly in the distance. Seagulls fed on the debris left in the wake of the receding tide. The scene had an eerie otherworldly quality, for sunlight had not yet dispelled the last tendrils of fog. Later in the day the sands would be busy with bathing machines and fishing boats, but at this hour the seaside belonged to the screeching gulls, lending it an aspect of Eden after the fall.

Into this secluded paradise galumphed a great beast, a canine of some exotic lineage with fat, flat paws that sent the damp sand flying in all directions, and long multicolored fur that wafted about him in the exhilarating sea air. Indeed, so varied were his hues that the creature appeared to have bounded unrestrained through a number of paint pots. And so abundant was his coat that one end could be distinguished from the other only by the glimpse of a pink and damply lolling tongue or an energetically wagging tail.

Over the beach, the great beast gamboled, mightily disarranging the sand and destroying various specimens of marine life, startling the feeding seagulls into annoyed squawks—and dragging an irate young lady in his wake.

"Lump!" she cried, grasping at her straw bonnet with one hand while with the other she clutched the dog's stout leash. "You shall have no stew bones for a fortnight if you do not slow down, you wretched beast!"

Thus scolded, the dog did slow his pace, due less to this dire threat than to his discovery of an especially intriguing morsel of seaweed. As he snuffled and drooled upon this latest object of his interest, his mistress readjusted her straw bonnet, which had slipped forward to rest on her nose, thereby revealing herself as a lady not so young as she had first appeared, a slender female of medium height with attractive features, dreamy gray eyes, and blond hair that escaped her bonnet in riotous wisps. At six-and-twenty, she was beyond her first youth—indeed, Miss Georgiana Halliday knew herself to be a confirmed spinster, firmly set upon the shelf. Her gown also was beyond its first bloom, as was the shawl she had wrapped around her shoulders as protection against the chill air.

The fog was lifting. Soon the fishing vessels would return laden with fish for the London markets. Miss Halliday drew her shawl more tightly around her as she gazed out at the horizon. Once a simple fishing village, Brighton had been turned into a popular resort by the Prince Regent. It was not the thing, perhaps, to stroll along the seashore escorted only by a dog, but the fashionable world did not rise to greet the sunrise, would not venture forth until much later in the day to engage in morning rides and afternoon calls, to inspect the expensive shops on North Street and promenade along the Steine, and later still to disport themselves at card parties and soirees.

Considering herself quite free from observation, Miss Halliday returned her attention to the letter which she was trying to peruse, an effort made difficult not only by Lump's perambulations, but also by lines that were crossed and crossed again. As best she could determine from these pothooks and hangers, Miss Halliday's oldest friend had landed herself in a pickle, not as unusual a circumstance as Georgie might have wished. "'Things could not be in a worse case. I am in a dreadful pucker!'" she read aloud and commented, "Yes, and when were you not? Oh, Marigold!"

Grown bored with the seaweed, which he had reduced to a mere shadow of its former splendor, Lump raised his shaggy head and peered about. Unlike his mistress, he was disappointed to find the beach so deserted; he would have been very excited to chase a fishing boat or a bathing machine. Alas, there was nothing to pique his interest but seagulls flocking to a distant point. Yes, and why were they so doing? Lump thought he must find out.

With a happy woof, the dog bounded forward. Caught off-guard and off-balance, Miss Halliday sat down smack on the damp sand.

"Oh, Lump!" she wailed, as she struggled to her feet. Oblivious to censure, the dog galloped down the beach, barking and panting and dragging his leash behind. Eventually he would return to her, of course, but Miss Halliday dared not wait for that felicitous event. Appalling, the amount of damage that could be wrought by Galumphus unrestrained.

Muttering unladylike sentiments, Miss Halliday lifted up her skirts and set out in pursuit. At least at this early hour there was no one to see her disgrace herself, she thought
.

In that, she was mistaken. Miss Halliday was not the only member of the polite world not snugly still abed. A tall, dark-haired gentleman walked along the esplanade that bordered the beach. He wore a drab greatcoat against the chill air, and beneath it an exquisitely cut black coat and kerseymere waistcoat, pantaloons, and Hessian boots. No early riser, he; the Earl of Warwick had not yet been to sleep, having marked his arrival in Brighton with several rounds of cards, and several more bottles than were prudent of various potent beverages. His lordship was not so inexperienced in the ways of the world as to allow himself to be either fleeced or foxed, but he admittedly had the devil of a head.

Brighton's bracing sea breezes were famed for their salubrious effect on sluggish livers and general debilitation. Lord Warwick had hoped they might also be of some benefit in blowing away residual brandy fumes. Thus far, unfortunately, this foray had only increased his discomfort. In addition to having an aching head, he was now also cold and damp and surrounded by a clutch of screeching seagulls demanding more than the meager biscuit he'd brought with him from the gambling hell.

Irritably he swatted at the birds with his curly-brimmed beaver hat. The gulls squawked and settled down a short distance away to watch and wait, putting his lordship strongly in mind of a bevy of gabble-grinders prepared to dish up the scandal broth. Once Lord Warwick had been as amused as anyone by the latest scandalous story fabricated in the bay window at White's. He was less easily diverted since his own name had been bandied about the clubrooms of St. James's Street and Pall Mall.

Now, even on the seashore, he was the cynosure of bright, malicious eyes. "The devil fly away with all of you!" said Lord Warwick, as he flung a seashell at his tormentors.

The gulls shrieked, flapped their wings, rose into the air, but Lord Warwick's seashell failed to frighten them away. Instead they flew straight at him, causing his lordship to wonder if he was to be pecked to death on Brighton Beach by seagulls in search of biscuit crumbs, an ignominious prospect which inspired him to perform windmill-like maneuvers with his beaver hat.

Miraculously, the birds flew past. Nipping along smartly on their tails came a large and multicolored canine. Lord Warwick glimpsed a pink and damply lolling tongue and what seemed an inordinate number of gleaming, sharp teeth as the beast passed him by. Stumbling through the sand in pursuit of the creature was a young woman with her skirts snatched up and her straw bonnet tilted precariously low on her forehead. Lord Warwick had barely time to note the neat turn of the damsel's ankle before she fetched up hard against his chest.

Of course, he clutched her to him. Lord Warwick might be despondent, and devilish out of humor, and embittered by the harsh hand dealt him by unkind fate, but he was not averse to an armful of frail femininity. She felt damnably good to him, even soiled doves being less prone to cast out their lures in his direction than once they had been.

That he clutched a lightskirt, Lord Warwick never doubted. An unusual sort of lightskirt, with a novel manner of presenting herself to a gentleman, but Lord Warwick had been accosted by ambitious Cyprians often enough not to be surprised. "Well met, fair charmer," he murmured. Doubtless this enterprising daughter of pleasure knew not who he was. Lord Warwick decided he would not enlighten her. Then he scowled. Perhaps the vixen
did
know his identity and had some ulterior motive in seeking him out.

Miss Halliday, meanwhile, was subject to conflicting emotions. She had no notion of why this strange gentleman had accosted her, or why he was holding her so hard against his chest. Unaccustomed to being treated in this cavalier manner, she was forced to admit that the sensation was not altogether unpleasant. Improper, certainly; she must make a push to free herself.

"Sir!" gasped Miss Halliday. "I am a respectable female." Her protests might have been more effective, certainly would have been more intelligible, had they not been muffled against the stranger's thick coat. So tightly was he clutching her that he must surely bruise her flesh. "I insist that you release me this instant!"

Whether or not Lord Warwick would have released the lady—or in his opinion, ladybird— remains a moot point; his lordship had a certain perversity of nature that made him frequently reluctant to oblige. However, Lump had by this time wearied of terrifying seagulls into heart attacks. Upon hearing his mistress's voice raised in anger, the dog loped back along the beach. No doubt she was all of a muck of sweat about his disappearance. He would present himself to her unscathed, so she would see that all was well.

But what was this? She was not alone. Lump contemplated the spectacle of his mistress struggling with a strange gentleman, and decided that she was embarked on some new game. Incapable of refraining from involving himself in any frolic that took place in his vicinity, Lump leapt forward with a happy bark.

That bark, unhappily for Lump, ended the fun straightaway. Confronted by a large and enthusiastic canine, Lord Warwick released his captive, whose straw bonnet had slid forward to rest once again on the bridge of her nose.

Miss Halliday drew in a deep breath. "I have not the most distant guess why you should treat me in this odious fashion, sir. But I will do you the courtesy of assuming that it was due to some awkward misapprehension—oh, get down, you clunch!" This last remark was addressed not to his lordship, but to Lump, who sought to assure his mistress of his continued well-being and joy in their reunion by saluting her cheek, thereby knocking her bonnet to the sand. Miss Halliday shoved her troublesome pet aside and snatched up her hat.

As she straightened, she saw her accoster clearly for the first time. He was scowling at her with the expression of a man who finds himself abruptly thunderstruck. Miss Halliday could perfectly share in his feelings. She felt suddenly dizzy and flushed, and wished she might sit down.

"Garth!" she gasped. At forty, Lord Warwick retained the muscular figure of a noted sportsman, although there were now faint strands of silver in his windblown raven hair. His finely chiseled features were sterner than she remembered, his dark eyes more remote. Scant wonder, thought Miss Halliday. Her heart gave a queer little lurch.

The silence stretched out unbearably between them. "Will you not speak to me?" she said at length. "Must I apologize for giving you a rake-down? It was your own fault! If you assume that every female you meet is a fair unfortunate, you are bound to find yourself in disgrace."

Reminded of his far-from-blameless reputation, Lord Warwick's expression grew even more shuttered. Miss Halliday could cheerfully have bitten off her tongue. "You know I did not mean
that!"
she
said.

Lord Warwick did not answer, but instead reached for her hand. As he drew her closer to him, Miss Halliday wondered faintly if he could feel the hammering of her pulse. Hot with embarrassment, she fixed her eyes on his exquisitely tied cravat. Lord Warwick's other hand moved to her chin. "Look at me, Georgie," he said.

Slowly, she raised her eyes. Lord Warwick's expression was unreadable as his fingers moved across her cheek to tangle themselves in her hair. With a sudden oath he pulled her hard against him. His mouth descended upon hers.

His lips were soft, and then demanding. So startled was Miss Halliday by this onslaught that she made no demur, even slid her arms around his strong shoulders so that, she told herself, he would not sweep her altogether off her feet.

As abruptly as he had embraced Miss Halliday, Lord Warwick let her go. "I wondered if I would still wish to do that," he said.

Georgie stumbled, caught herself. "And?" she murmured, with considerably more nonchalance than she felt, and no little interest in his reply.

Lord Warwick's expression was shuttered, his voice bleak. "I find that I still do." Without another word, he stepped back from her and turned and walked away.

"Garth!" cried Georgie, but he did not look back. Her emotions in turmoil, she stood and watched him disappear into the distance. Then she stooped and picked up Marigold's letter from the sand.

Why was Garth so angry? If anyone had cause to be in a pucker, it was Georgie herself. Yes, and she very well might be, once she caught her breath. Miss Halliday had not had a great deal of experience with kissing, or with the after-tingles and tremors that left her both light-headed and weak-kneed.

Why the devil
had
Garth kissed her? Could his lordship have been cup-shot? If only she had been other than windblown and disheveled and covered with sand! With the still-unread letter, Georgie fanned her cheeks, thereby attracting the attention of a seagull, which swooped and snatched the missive from her hand.

BOOK: Cupid's Dart
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