On a Wicked Dawn by Stephanie Laurens

Chapter 1

Mount Street, London 3A.M., May 25, 1825

He was drunk. Gloriously drunk. More drunk — drunker — than he'd ever been. Not that he made a habit of inebriation, but last night, or more specifically and especially this morning, was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. After eight long years, he was free.

Lucien Michael Ashford, sixth Viscount Calverton, sauntered along Mount Street, nonchalantly twirling his ebony cane, a smile of unfettered joy curving his lips.

He was twenty-nine, yet today qualified as the first of his adult life, the first day he could call said life his own. Even better, as of yesterday, he was rich. Fabulously, fantastically — legally — wealthy. There was not a great deal more he could think of to wish for. If he hadn't been afraid of falling on his face, he would have danced down the deserted street.

The moon was out, lighting the pavements, casting deep shadows. About him, London lay sleeping, but the capital, even at this hour, was never truly silent; from a distance, distorted by the stone facades all around, came the jingle of harness, the hollow clop of hooves, a disembodied call.

Although even here, in the most fashionable quarter, danger sometimes lurked in the shadows, he felt no threat. His senses were still operational, and despite his state he'd taken care to walk evenly; any watching him with felonious intent would see a tall, sufficiently well built, gracefully athletic gentleman swinging a cane that might, and indeed did, conceal a swordstick, and move on to more likely prey.

He'd left his club in St. James and the company of a group of friends half an hour ago, electing to walk home the better to clear his head of the effects elicited by a quantity of the very best French brandy. His celebrations had been restrained owing to the simple fact that none of said friends — indeed no one other than his mother and his wily old banker, Robert Child — knew anything of his previous state, the dire straits to which he and his family had been brought by his sire prior to his death eight years before, the perilous situation from which he'd spent the last eight years clawing his way back, and from which yesterday he'd finally won free.

The fact they'd had no idea what he was celebrating had not prevented his friends from joining him. A long night filled with wine, song, and the simple pleasures of male companionship had ensued.

A pity his oldest friend, his cousin Martin Fulbridge, now Dexter, earl of, wasn't presently in London. Then again, Martin was doubtless enjoying himself at his home in the north, wallowing in the benefits accruing to a recently married man; he had married Amanda Cynster a week ago.

Grinning to himself, Luc mentally — superiorly — shook his head over his cousin's weakness, his surrender to love. Reaching his house, he turned to the shallow steps leading to the front door — his head spun for an instant, then righted. Carefully, he walked up the steps, halted before the door, then hunted in his pocket for his keys.

They slipped through his fingers twice before he grasped them and hauled them forth. The ring in his palm, he shuffled the keys, frowning as he tried to identify the one for the front door. Then he found it. Grasping it, he squinted, guiding it to keyhole… after the third try, it slid home; he turned and heard the tumblers fall.

Returning the keys to his pocket, he grasped the knob and sent the door swinging wide. He stepped over the threshold—

A dervish erupted from the black hole of the area steps — he caught only a fleeting glimpse, had only an instant's warning before the figure barreled past him, one elbow knocking him off-balance. He staggered and fetched up against the hall wall.

That brief human contact, deadened by layers of fabric though it was, sent sensation rushing through him, and told him unequivocally who the dervish was. Amelia Cynster. Twin to his cousin's new wife, longtime friend of his family's whom he'd known since she was in nappies. An as-yet-unmarried female with a backbone of steel. Cloaked and hooded, she plunged into the dim hall, came to an abrupt halt, then whirled and faced him.

The wall behind his shoulders was the only thing keeping him upright. He stared, astounded, utterly bemused… waited for the effect of her touch to subside…

She made an angry, frustrated sound, dashed back to the door, grabbed it, and propelled it shut. The loss of the moonlight left him blinking, eyes adjusting to the dark. The door closed, she swung around; her back to the panel, she glared — he felt it.

"What the devil's the matter with you?" she hissed.

"Me?" Easing his shoulders from the wall, he managed to find his balance. "What the damn hell are you doing here?"

He couldn't even begin to imagine. Moonlight streamed in through the fanlight, passing over their heads to strike the pale tiles of the hall. In the diffused light, he could just make out her features, fine and delicate in an oval face, framed by golden curls tumbling under her hood.

She straightened; chin rising, she set the hood back. "I wanted to speak with you privately."

"It's three o'clock in the morning."

"I know! I've been waiting since one. But I wanted to speak with you without anyone else knowing — I can hardly come here during the day and demand to speak privately with you, can I?"

"No — for a very good reason." She was unmarried, and so was he. If she wasn't standing before the door he'd be tempted to open it and… he frowned. "You didn't come alone?"

"Of course not. I've a footman outside."

He put a hand to his brow. "Oh. Good." This was getting complicated.

"For goodness sake! Just listen. I know all about your family's financial state."

That captured his immediate and complete attention. Noting it, she nodded. "Exactly. But you needn't worry I'll tell anyone — indeed, quite the opposite. That's why I needed to speak with you alone. I've a proposition to put to you."

His wits were reeling — he couldn't think what to say. Couldn't imagine what she was going to say.

She didn't wait, but drew breath and launched in. "It must be plain, even to you, that I've been looking about for a husband, yet the truth is there's not a single eligible gentleman I feel the least bit inclined to marry. But now Amanda's gone, I find it boring in the extreme continuing as an unmarried young lady." She paused, then went on, "That's point one.

"Point two is that you and your family are in straitened circumstances." She held up a staying hand. "You needn't try to tell me otherwise — over the past weeks I've spent a lot of time here, and generally about with your sisters. Emily and Anne don't know, do they? You needn't fear I've told them — I haven't. But when one is that close, little things do show. I realized a few weeks ago and much I've noticed since has confirmed my deduction. You're in dun territory—no! Don't say a word. Just hear me out."

He blinked — he was barely keeping up with the flow of her revelations; he didn't at present have any brain left over to cope with formulating speech.

She eyed him with typical acerbity, apparently reassured when he remained mute. "I know you are not to blame — it was your father who ran through the blunt, wasn't it? I've heard the grandes dames say often enough that it was a good thing he died before he crippled the estate, but the truth is he did bring your family to point non plus before he broke his neck, and you and your mother have been carefully preserving appearances ever since."

Her voice softened. "It must have been a Herculean task, but you've done brilliantly — I'm sure no one else has guessed. And, of course, I can see why you did it — with not just Emily and Anne, but Portia and Penelope, to establish, being known as paupers would be disastrous."

She frowned as if checking a mental list. "So that's point two — that it's imperative you and your family remain among the haut ton but you don't have the wherewithal to support such a lifestyle. You've been hanging on by your fingernails for years. Which brings me to point three. You."

She fixed her gaze on his face. "You don't appear to have considered marrying as a way to repair your finances. I imagine you didn't want to burden yourself with a wife who might have expensive expectations, quite aside from not wanting to burden yourself with a wife and any associated demands at all. That's point three and the reason I needed to speak with you privately."

Gathering herself, she tipped her chin higher. "I believe that we — you and I — could reach a mutually beneficial agreement. My dowry's considerable — more than sufficient to resuscitate the Ashford family fortunes, at least by enough to get by. And you and I have known each other forever — it's not as if we couldn't rub along well enough, and I know your family well, and they know me, and—"

"Are you suggesting we marry?"

His thunderstruck tones had her glaring.

"Yes! And before you start on about how nonsensical a notion it is, just consider. It's not as if I expect—"

He missed whatever she wasn't expecting. He stared at her through the dimness. Her lips continued to move; presumably she was talking. He tried to listen, but his mind refused to cooperate. It had frozen — seized — on the one vital, crucial, unbelievable fact.

She was offering to be his wife.

If the sky had fallen he couldn't have been more shocked. Not by her suggestion — by his reaction.