Authors: Collette Cameron
Table of Contents
THE VISCOUNT’S VOW
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
THE VISCOUNT’S VOW
Cover Design by Rae Monet, Inc.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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This one’s for you,
Jesse and Travess.
For the brave and daring heroes
in your boyhood play—dragon slayers, Navy seals,
professional athletes, safari hunters, and jungle warriors.
May you always conquer evil
and fight for everything that is honorable,
righteous, truthful, and decent.
You will forever be the heroes in my mother’s heart.
Many hugs and kisses to my beta readers, Brianna Herrington, Debbie Davison, and Rachael Rodrigue, and an equally big thanks to my critique partners, Jess Russell and Brenda Spears-Mania. You ladies made an enormous difference and contributed so much to the polishing of Vangie and Ian’s story. A special shout out to all my friends in education at GWE and PE who cheered me on and enthusiastically shared my excitement and joy when I learned THE VISCOUN’TS VOW was going to be published. Thank you for never rolling your eyes at my frequent—and I’m sure, occasionally obnoxious and annoying—updates, and for being so tolerant of my childlike giddiness. Christy Caughie of Guilded Heart Designs, my humblest thanks for all you did with my website, blog, and social media.
I’m eternally indebted to my neglected husband, who though not a reader, still encouraged me to write this book and those that will come after. Thank you for passing out my business cards to your clients and for proudly telling everyone who paused for more than a second, “My wife is an author.”
And to the role model for Puri Daj, June Cameron—for your grandmotherly wisdom, unconditional love, and spiritual insights—I am forever grateful.
London, Late April, 1814
Vengeance isn’t sweet.
Ian Warrick tipped his champagne flute and took a lengthy swallow. It didn’t help. He eyed the pale amber liquid. The insipid wine masquerading as champagne did little to wash away the bitterness lingering in his soul.
A young woman partnered by a fusty old lord whirled by. Ian’s gaze followed her.
After seeking her the better part of an hour, he’d finally found her, or more on point, he’d had her pointed out to him. A half-smile tugged his lips upward as he watched the aged poger trying to steer her into a secluded alcove behind a wall of potted greenery. Even across the ballroom, Ian saw her tromp on the ancient fellow’s foot.
That had been no accident.
For a fleeting moment, his smile stretched into a grin of genuine amusement. It vanished just as quickly. He wasn’t here to be amused, especially by her.
He lounged against the ballroom’s intricately carved doorframe and glanced around the opulent room. The light of dozens of candles reflected off the crystal chandeliers and framed mirrors gilding one side of the room. The dancers were a blur of pulsing colors before the reflective glass.
This was the first social event he’d attended since resigning his commission in His Majesty’s Army. The first since he’d assumed the duties of the seventh Viscount Warrick. The first since his father succumbed to heart failure brought on by Geoff’s death.
Ian sought Miss Caruthers again. His gaze lingered. His younger brother was dead. Because of her. Like a rapier between his ribs, pain pierced him sharp and fierce, hitching the air in his lungs. He exhaled—a slow, deliberate breath. Narrowing his eyes, he lifted the flute to his lips.
A lieutenant reeking of strong spirits staggered from the ballroom and plowed into him. Ian choked on the wine trickling down his throat. “Good—God—man,” he said between strangled coughs.
“‘Scuse me, m’lord. Don’ feel well. Too hot.”
Swallowing against the stinging in his throat, Ian beckoned to a livered servant. “Help that chap, please.”
He pointed to the lieutenant weaving his way through the doorway and careening into any guest unfortunate enough to be in his path. The crimson-uniformed soldier traveled but a dozen steps more before casting up his accounts on the glossy marble floor. Gentlemen raised their voices in protest as ladies yanked their skirts aside, squawking in outrage.
Ian curved his lips again. Poor sot. He’d done it up brown—literally. The ballroom was much too warm, the crush of guests intolerable. He inhaled, and his nose twitched. The place stank of sweat, unwashed bodies, and an abundance of cloying perfume. He smirked. No doubt the ball would be touted a
success despite the lieutenant’s messy mishap.
Ian cared little. Everything about this falderal left him cold. If the circumstances weren’t pressing, he wouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be here with his brother dead and buried less than a month, his father scarcely a fortnight. Ian’s breech of mourning protocol bordered on ruinous—not that he gave a damn. Miss Caruthers’s retribution could not wait.
Nor could the explanation Prinny demanded for Geoff’s role in the Duke of Paneswort’s death. Paneswort, a royal pain in the arse, had been a particular favorite of the Prince Regent’s.
At any rate, Prinny was irate. So, Ian cast off propriety, abandoned the peace and quiet of his country house, Somersfield, and ventured into this fray despite the
disapproval of his presence. He’d deal with Miss Caruthers, then pacify His Majesty.
Turning, he rested his shoulder against the wall, the deep saffron-colored wallpaper, very much like the color of the mess in the process of being cleared away. His gaze swept the room once more. Lord, how he despised these garish affairs. The pretentiousness. The fake smiles. The gossip. The social climbing. Every bit added to the bad taste in his mouth.
He felt the fool, snooping round to determine who Miss Caruthers was. He’d stooped to eavesdropping on the spinsterish misses gossiping along the dance floor’s periphery. When they’d turned their eager, expectant faces to him, he’d fled like a frightened dog with its tail between its legs.
He was the worst sort of knave, raising their pitiful hopes then dashing off without so much as a
How do you do
? Had the toxic mixture of grief and ire addled him? His grip tightened round the etched flute’s stem.
The idea wasn’t far-fetched.
He’d resorted, without success until now, to asking acquaintances to identify Miss Caruthers to him. More than one male mouth stretched into a rakish grin at his probing.
“Want a taste of that, eh, Warrick?”
“Prime mort she is.”
Ian raised his glass again. Empty. The devil take it.
Searching the room for a servant bearing more spirits, he tried to ignore the tittering débutantes and their matchmaking mamas vying for his attention. He supposed he was ripe for the Marriage Mart now—rather like a piece of prime horseflesh at Tattersalls. Everyone present knew he was newly titled.
More than one affronted dame glared at him. He’d bet his favorite hunting hound they were more vexed with him for ignoring their transparent attempts to parade their calf-eyed daughters before him than his blatant disregard for mourning customs.
He cared not. Not tonight leastways.
Miss Caruthers commandeered his attention this evening. Frowning, Ian considered her. Adorned in a shimmering white gown, with some sort of filmy overskirt, she was, he grudgingly admitted, exquisite. Her black hair piled atop her head was adorned with a tiara and entwined with a filigree circlet. It twinkled each time she moved her head.
She appeared angelic.
He knew better.
Her alluring eyes and seductive smile couldn’t gull him. Miss Caruthers might be a diamond of the first water, but he knew the truth concerning her
was immune to her charms. His gaze sharp, he cocked his head. She appeared regal, poised, accepting dance request after dance request. A demure, almost shy, smile curved her rosy lips.
Did she rouge them? He curled his lip. Likely.
He folded his arms and relaxed against the wall. The young bloods buzzing round her like bees to golden honey only confirmed what he’d been told of her.
His sister, Charlotte, eyes red-rimmed from crying, had wailed, “Miss Caruthers collects men like souvenirs.”
Ian grimaced again, his attention never straying from her as she stepped and dipped to the music. Oh, yes, he knew her kind.
She epitomized the type of women he disdained. Fast women, who bewitched unsuspecting swains, like Geoff, and who stole beaus from innocents like Charlotte. Sirens
who cast their admirers off with the same regard as a soiled napkin or used tealeaves. Seductresses ever intent on pursuing their new conquests, uncaring of the hearts they crushed or lives they left in ruins as a consequence of their Jezebel triumphs.
A familiar twinge stung his heart—or mayhap it was only his pride. Amelia was such a woman, though he hadn’t known it until she’d tossed him aside for a bigger prize. Why settle for him, the heir to a mere viscountcy, when there was a duke to be seduced? Ironically, the same duke who now lay dead from the lead ball Geoff planted in his chest.
Exchanging his empty glass for a full one offered by a passing servant, Ian suppressed a sigh. He didn’t want to be here—loathed being here. He’d only come on his brother and sister’s behalf, to set things to right. In one quaff, he polished off the weak wine, barely suppressing a shudder.
Vile stuff, that.
Scowling at Miss Caruthers maneuvering the steps of the lively country-dance, he clamped his lips so hard he felt a muscle spasm in his jaw. He trailed her movements, ever closer, across the sanded parquet floor. The dance steps brought her within a few feet of where he stood. Skipping past him, she laughed at something her partner said.
A jolt slammed into Ian’s gut.
God’s blood! She was laughing, as if she hadn’t a care in the world. His breath hissed from between clenched teeth. Under his breath he vowed, “By all that is holy, by evening’s end, I’ll put a stop to your dalliances—once and for all.”
Precisely how he was going to go about it, he hadn’t yet determined.
Someone jabbed his shoulder.
He stiffened at the familiar feminine voice.
“Heard tell you were here. Didn’t believe it at first.”
She poked him again, harder this time. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were avoiding me.”
Dash it all, he had been.
He sucked in a calming breath before turning around and smiling down into the face of his maternal aunt, Lady Fitzgibbons. Barely reaching his shoulder, Aunt Edith was a formidable dowager in her own right. Tonight, she was attired in a vivid crimson dress. A colorful ostrich feather waved flirtatiously in her silver-streaked hair. Her familiar violet perfume wafted upward tickling his nostrils.
Ian bowed over her outstretched hand. “Aunt Edith, you know I always delight in your company.”
“Pshaw. Don’t try your charming tricks on me, young scamp.” She cast a quick look around the room. “Gads, Ian, you’re in mourning. Whatever are you doing here?”
He arched a brow at her, but remained silent.
“None of my business, eh?”
She surveyed him with shrewd eyes. “How are you faring?” Then, only out of polite necessity he was sure, she inquired, “Lucinda and Charlotte?”
With a quirk of his lips, Ian said, “You don’t care a whit how my stepmother is doing. Or Charlotte either, for that matter.”
Aunt Edith inclined her noble head slightly and poked him with the tortoiseshell fan again. He was sorely tempted to snatch the fan from her and toss it behind the greenery—after snapping it in half.
“You haven’t answered me. I know how much you cared for Geoff.” Worry shadowed her unique gray eyes. His mother’s eyes had been the same unusual shade.
His gaze lingered on her. She was a saucy old bird, but a dear through and through. “I’m fine, Aunt.”
As if compelled by an unseen force, his gaze was drawn to Miss Caruthers once more. A callow-faced youth escorted her to her seat where a line of eager pups stood ready to claim her for the next set.
He stood straighter. Had he imagined it, or had her steps faltered and her shoulders slumped, just the merest bit? Was her smile a little strained? Ian stared, searching her face. No, she smiled as brightly as ever.
He’d imbibed too much wine—that was all. His faculties were affected, which is why he generally steered clear of the stuff. He fingered the cut crystal glass in his hand. How many had he downed since arriving? He shook his head. More than he ought. He would regret it come morn. Tonight though, the liquor dulled his senses, his pain, his grief . . . his rage.
An observant servant offered him another full glass. Ian waved away the offer and handed over the empty flute.
“Ah, I see Miss Caruthers has caught your eye. She’s a delightful girl, exceptional manners, and quite an accomplished artist.”
He shot his aunt an astounded look. Thank God, she didn’t see it. She was too busy jabbering on about Miss Caruthers.
“Soft spoken, intelligent, excellent dancer, decorous behavior. . .”
Ian smothered a snort. Miss Caruthers was an accomplished actress if Aunt Edith was unaware of her soiled feathers. No doubt Miss Caruthers emulated chastity and virtue under the
watchful eye while tossing up her skirts in the shrubberies after nightfall.
A flamboyantly attired dandy elbowed his way to her side. She snapped open her fan and began waving it before her face.
Aunt Edith chuckled, elbowing Ian in the side. “Gads, would you look at Pickering’s togs?” Her shoulders shook with mirth. “La, what a nincompoop. Whatever can he be thinking?”
Shocked, Ian went rigid, darting his gaze to his aunt, then flicking it to the man hovering near Miss Caruthers.
is the Earl of Pickering?”
Charlotte’s beloved Reggie?
The man whose affections Miss Caruthers stole?
Ian rolled his eyes at the absurdity. It was laughable. He smiled at the irony until the memory of Geoff’s grinning face intruded. Charlotte’s affection for Pickering might be ludicrous. Geoff’s and his father’s deaths were anything but. Miss Caruthers had much to atone for.
Crinkling her nose, Aunt Edith whispered, “He doesn’t favor bathing.” She paused, “I take it you’ve not been introduced to Pickering?”
Ian sensed his aunt’s perusal. She knew him too well; precisely why he’d avoided her. Mindful of her probing stare, Ian schooled his features and shook his head. “I’ve not had the . . . ah . . . pleasure.”
“He just came into his title, only because his unfortunate cousin expired without issue.” She cast Pickering a censored look. “He’s an obnoxious coxcomb.”
Ian silently agreed. The ridiculous ensemble Pickering wore pained the eye, clear down to his outdated red, high-heeled shoes. The shoes pitched his body forward when he walked causing his neck to bobble like the vibrant parrot he resembled.
A moment later Pickering guffawed. The whistling squawks passing for laughter confirmed Ian’s initial assessment of the fop. Miss Caruthers’s fan swished faster, and her eyes—were they blue?—searched the room. Was anxiety creasing her otherwise smooth brow? The toes of one foot tapped nonstop. In vexation?
An idea took hold.
“Introduce me, Aunt Edith, won’t you?” Ian would have asked Prinny himself to do the honors if it meant making Miss Caruthers’s acquaintance. Only for the purpose of delivering her just dues, of course.
Aunt Edith cocked her head. “I seem to recall you prefer more, shall we say,
damsels. Miss Caruthers is far more gently-bred than your usual choice of companion.” She stepped backward an arm’s length, assessing him with her too astute gaze. “What are you really about?”