Authors: Joan Johnston
“I WANT YOU TO MARRY ME. IN FACT, I INSIST UPON IT.”
Verity, Lady Talbot, Countess of Rushland, looked stunned, appalled. Miles hadn’t expected her to be happy about his proposal. That was why he had planned everything so carefully, so she would have no way out.
Her chin came up, and she arched one fine, aristocratic brow. “You
“That deed of yours isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. If you refuse my offer, you won’t have a farthing to your name.”
“I concede such a marriage might help me, Miles. What do you hope to gain from it?”
“You,” he said in a silky voice. “In my bed.”
HIGH PRAISE FOR JOAN JOHNSTON
Best Western Author of the Year Award and Best Western Series Award AND HER PREVIOUS BESTSELLING NOVELS
“With her usual expertise for finding just the right balance of poignancy and humor, Joan Johnston delivers a delightful romance peopled with engaging characters who will surely steal your heart.”—
“WELL-WRITTEN … A TREMENDOUS TALE … THE CHARACTERS ARE ALL FIRST-RATE.”—
Affaire de Coeur
“Intrigue and passion, combined with a tender love story, make this one delicious, and the subplots promise us closer looks at her riveting characters in future books.”—
is a very amusing and imaginative romp that has the Joan Johnston stamp of excellence all over it … A HIGHLY RECOMMENDED TREAT.”—
Affaire de Coeur
“4+ Hearts! Powerful and moving … Joan Johnston has cleverly merged the aura of the Americana-style romance with the grittier Westerns she has written in the past, making
into a feast for all her fans. This irresistible love story once again ensures Ms. Johnston a place in readers’ hearts and on their ‘keeper’ shelves.”—
“UNFORGETTABLE … A TOUCHING TAPESTRY.”—
Affaire de Coeur
“This most enjoyable Western is packed with spunky women, tough men, rotten bad guys and ornery kids … just the ingredients for a fine read.”—
“This story has surprises at every turn … and it’s all pulled together with Ms. Johnston’s special blend of humor. Plenty of action and adventure to keep you entertained, this is a top-notch Western romance with sparkling characters and dynamic dialogue.”—
Dell Books by Joan Johnston
After the Kiss
The Barefoot Bride
Outlaw’s Bride Sweetwater Seduction
Comanche Woman Frontier Woman
of Random House, Inc.
Copyright © 1995 by Joan Mertens Johnston
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She could hear him pacing in the hall, the sound of his Wellington boots echoing off the high, second-story ceiling of the London town house. When he reached the end of the hall he slapped his riding whip against his buckskins, turned, and marched back the other direction. She opened her mouth to beg her maid, Jenny, to close the bedroom door, but her throat was so parched her voice cracked before coherent sound emerged. She gripped the bedsheets as another pain racked her belly.
Verity, Lady Talbot, Countess of Rushland, bit her lip until she tasted blood, writhing as she labored to expel the child, unwilling to scream because that would bring him back into the room.
She didn’t want him here. She wanted another man, the child’s father.
The pain passed, as many others had over the
previous afternoon and interminable night, leaving her exhausted, enervated, and on the verge of tears. Yesterday she had turned eighteen. Today she would become a mother.
Dawn’s pinkened fingertips steadily crawled their way over the windowsill. The smell of burned wax assailed her nostrils as Jenny blew out the guttering candle beside her bed before hurrying down to the kitchen for more hot water.
Miles. Where are you? Why aren’t you here? I’m so sorry. I made a mistake. If only I could undo it, I would
Leah, the elderly, white-haired nurse who had watched over Verity since her mother had died giving birth to her, patted Verity’s forehead with a cool, damp cloth, then pressed it against her cracked lips. “There, there, sweeting. Don’t try to speak. Save your strength. The babe cannot be long now in coming.”
“The earl—” she rasped.
“Your husband is pacing the hall, anxiously awaiting his heir,” Leah said with a soothing smile. “I must say, his lordship is impatient to become a father. But, after all, when a man’s heir is about to be born—”
“Please. Don’t say any more.”
Verity closed her eyes and forced her mind away from thoughts of her child’s father. Miles Broderick—Viscount Linden since his elder brother’s death nine months ago—was lost to her. She was married to Chester Talbot, Earl of Rushland. There was no turning back.
At least Chester had no inkling of the truth. She hadn’t realized she was with child when she married the earl, believing, foolishly, that her lack of courses during the weeks before her marriage was merely the result of anxiety and unhappiness. Else she would have found some way out of the marriage, no matter what hardship it caused her badly dipped father to lose the generous settlement the earl had paid to have her.
Verity forced back the self-pity and summoned righteous anger. Because, when all was said and done, it was not her father’s debts that had forced her into marriage, it was Chester’s threats against Miles.
It was amazing to think a man as young as Miles—he had turned one and twenty over the past summer—could have earned such a deadly enemy. Verity knew the enmity was long-standing, dating to the days when both boys had attended Eton. When Chester had attempted to bully Miles, the smaller, slighter boy had beaten him in a bout of fisticuffs. Humbled and humiliated, Chester had proceeded to make Miles’s life at Eton a living hell. He had continued his malicious behavior when the two boys attended Oxford and was still at it years later.
She had asked Miles if there was nothing he could do to cry friends with Lord Talbot. Miles had shaken his head and said, “He will not have it. He must beat me. It is not in him to give up.”
“Could you not let him win once?” Verity had asked. “Perhaps if the challenge were gone …”
Miles had shaken his head. “He would only become more brutal. For such as he, it is the fear and pain of his victim that give joy, not the defeat itself.”
Chester had told her, without a trace of guilt or remorse, that he was responsible for the carriage accident that had caused the death of Miles’s elder brother, Gregory, and torn the flesh on the right side of Miles’s face to the bone. Chester had promised he could end Miles’s life just as easily as he had ended Gregory’s if she continued in her refusal to marry him.
“Believe me,” he had said. “I will arrange Miles’s death so no suspicion will fall upon me. Do not think you can warn him. I will simply wait for a time when his guard is down and kill him.”
The strange look in his yellow eyes, a sort of reptilian blankness, had made her shudder. Oh, yes, she had believed him.
And married a monster.
It was too late for regrets. What was done was done. Miles’s child would bear another man’s name. And she was condemned to be Countess of Rushland for as long as Chester Talbot lived.
Verity moaned and threw her head from side to side as a vise gripped her belly. She suddenly felt the urge to push. When she did, the pain was excruciating. “Leah! It hurts!”
“Yes, lovey,” Leah crooned as she made preparations for the coming child. “There is pain before the joy. Soon you will have the babe safe in your arms.”
Tears seeped from Verity’s closed eyelids as she panted to catch her breath. There was no respite before her body was besieged again. She groaned in agony as rough fingers of pain clamped down on her belly to force the child out.
“It’s coming. I have the head … and now the shoulders … Oh, lovey,” Leah said excitedly. “It’s a boy!”
Miles, we have a son!
“You’ve given the earl his heir!”
The sob of joy died in Verity’s throat at Leah’s pronouncement, and a knot of fear rose to take its place. God help her if Chester ever realized how she had cheated him. Her husband’s heir did not bear a drop of Talbot blood. Tragic as that circumstance was, it was not nearly as heartbreaking to her as the knowledge that the man she loved would never be able to acknowledge his son. She sobbed again, but this time it was a wrenching sound of despair.
“Oh, lovey, don’t cry,” Leah said as she placed the swaddled babe in its mother’s embrace. “Look here, what a fine boy he is!”
As Verity took her son in her arms, she felt such a swell of love that she thought her heart would burst. Here was the best part of herself, and of Miles.
I will make him a man worthy of his father
, she vowed.
She hadn’t realized Leah had left the room until she discovered Chester standing beside the bed. She looked up and saw nothing, no emotion at all,
reflected back to her from his pale, golden eyes. That, in itself, was frightening.
“Let me see him.”
She swallowed over the lump in her throat, lifted the birthing sheet away from the babe’s head, and whispered, “Here is your son, my lord.”
“Damn you to hell, woman!” he snarled. “Damn you to bloody, bloody hell!”
She shrank from the venom in his voice, clutching her son to her bosom.