Stop by and say hey. You should probably know going in that things happen within this book that are not okay by me. There is some dubious consent, some unfair and ugly name calling, and some unpleasant slapping of all the cheeks. The hero is also a classic alpha-hole and the virginal heroine sees him as a stand-in daddy figure. Megan has been the ward of 36 year old Justin, Lord of Sexton or Weston or somesuch. Anyway, he is a big shot in society and has loads of money and power and pretty much had zero to do with orphaned Megan for the twelve years she has been his responsibility.
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Justin Brant, sixth Earl of Weston, swore furiously as a stream of icy rainwater rolled off the already saturated brim of his slouch hat to find its way with devilish accuracy to the bare skin at the back of his neck. He clenched his teeth as the freezing water trickled down his spine. Damn the ungrateful little minx to hell, he thought angrily. When he caught up with her—as he would, and before too many more hours had passed—he was willing to wager anything one liked that he would soon cure her of her disobedient tricks once and for all!
The many-caped driving coat he wore was not intended for riding down an Irish excuse for a road in inclement weather. It left altogether too much of him exposed to the rain and wind that had been nowhere in evidence when he had left Galway that morning. With the predictable unpredictability of all things Irish, the downpour had descended upon him without warning; within five minutes, he had been drenched to the skin. His usually gleaming Hessians, the pride of Manning, his valet, were all but unrecognizable, and he was reasonably certain that both his dove gray pantaloons and once snowy neckcloth were ruined past saving.
More galling by far than his bedraggled finery was the knowledge that his curricle, specially designed by himself and well-known to every sporting gentleman who fancied himself a whip, yesterday had the misfortune to encounter a damned great hole where a hole had no business to be. The upshot of this unfortunate occurrence was that his curricle had broken a wheel, and he had been forced to leave it behind in Galway for repairs, along with his horses.
The only nag available for hire was one of the sorriest bits of blood and bone that he had ever clapped eyes on, and that was just his first impression!
As the beast had clopped its way toward their destination, his opinion of it had grown steadily worse. He might as well have been riding a cow! The only saving grace in the whole deplorable situation, every infuriating circumstance of which could be laid squarely at the door of his step-niece and ward, Miss Megan Kinkead, was that none of his many friends and acquaintances would be caught dead riding down a dirt road in the wilds of Ireland, and so at least he was spared their sniggers at his expense.
Justin had been riding under trying conditions for hours. As his horse squelched through the seething quagmire to which rain had reduced the road, he acknowledged that he had seldom been wetter, colder, or hungrier. As it was, it was coming close to the dinner hour, and he still had some five miles to go, which in his own curricle with his own horses, would have taken perhaps fifteen minutes to negotiate.
On this knock-kneed plug, he very much feared that it would take him five hours. Its object could count herself fortunate if a tongue-lashing was the worst she received when he caught up with her.
Although she had turned seventeen two or three months ago, and was properly considered a young lady now, she acted like a hoyden and it was as a hoyden that he would treat her. The idea of taking the flat of his hand to her backside did something to lessen his annoyance. By God, she had challenged his authority once too often, and this time he was going to make certain personally that she took the consequences!
She would find dealing with him a very different kettle of fish from wrapping Charles Stanton, his woolly-headed, soft-hearted secretary, around her little finger. This was the third time in eight months that she had run away from school—a very select and exclusive school into which it had cost him considerable effort to get her, thanks to her past record of being politely requested to leave one establishment after another for her pranks.
But, considering her tender sex and age, and orphaned state and his own lack of inclination to trouble himself about the matter , he had been, up to now, amazingly tolerant of her misdeeds. But this—this was the last straw. The minx, having taken it into her head to run off again, had somehow managed to induce a passing band of gypsies to take her with them. Justin was as alarmed as he was angry well, almost!
It was not long before he deduced that she was headed toward Ireland, and seemed blithely prepared to take up with any chance-met stranger who offered her a ride. He supposed he should be thankful that she had made no apparent effort to cover her tracks.
Wherever he went, everyone from hostlers to proper farm-wives remembered the pretty little miss, so sweet and well-spoken, and traveling on her own like, and were able to tell him in which direction she had set off. Justin could not quite believe that she did not expect to be pursued, so he could only conclude that the thought of being followed, and eventually overtaken, with all the accompanying consequences, bothered her not at all.
In the past it had been Charles Stanton who was sent to repair the damage wrought by the little witch, and no doubt Megan expected Stanton to be the one who came after her, to take her back to school, as he had twice before. But this time would be different.
It was time to teach her a lesson she would never forget. The girl had been an irritant ever since that day, twelve years before, when Richard, his feckless younger brother, had drowned along with Moira, his appalling mistake of a wife, when a packet taking them from Liverpool to Dublin had sunk.
Moira, a few years older than Richard, was an Irish peasant who earned her bread singing she said in the public houses of Dublin until she had managed to induce the soft-hearted Richard to marry her.
At least, he assumed that there had been a previous marriage. He could, of course, have refused the charge; no one would have blamed him; in fact, many would have approved his action, for the girl was of extremely questionable birth besides being no blood kin to the Brants.
However, all his life he had taken his responsibilities seriously, and this child, however unfortunately, seemed to fall into the realm of his responsibilities. So, cursing the necessity but feeling duty-bound, he had reluctantly journeyed down to Ireland to see to the little changeling for himself. He had been pleasantly surprised. She was a pretty creature, all tangled black curls and huge violet eyes, with delicate bones and fine porcelain skin that seemed to belie her ignominious birth.
Her pinafore was ill-fitting and stained and torn in several places, and her face decidedly dirty, but these were minor defects, easily remedied. After looking the child over, and being faintly taken aback by the cool appraisal he received in return, he had instructed Mrs.
Donovan, the housekeeper, to get her cleaned up; whereupon the impudent little minx had put out her tongue at the good lady. Justin had been much inclined to laugh as his flustered housekeeper attempted to take the child by the hand and lead her from the room.
He had even found it touching when the girl had run to him for succor, clinging to his leg for dear life as Mrs. Donovan tried without success to coax her into obedience. Finally judging that this fledgling revolt had gone on long enough, he had pried her little arms from around his leg.
She rewarded him by sinking a very sharp set of pearly white teeth into his thigh; to this day he bore a faint crescent-shaped scar to mark the spot. A wiser man would have washed his hands of the hell-born brat. Justin, at twenty-four, had been too young to know that there are some contests a man simply cannot win. He was determined to make a lady of her, even if it killed him.
And in the many years since, his guardianship seemed to be doing just that. And he had to admit it: She had defeated him at every turn. Despite his best efforts, despite the lavishing of untold sums of money on her care, comfort, and education, his recalcitrant ward seemed determined to pursue her own erratic course. He had to admit that some of the blame was his. He had been too caught up in his own pursuits to take much interest in the upbringing of a girl-child.
During the past two years he had not seen Megan at all. This admission caused him a slight twinge of guilt, which he immediately banished by reminding himself of how busy he had been.
As a peer of the realm, he had involved himself with issues of state, and they were certainly of more import than a child who was not even his own. Alicia, to his certain knowledge, had not bestirred herself since the day fifteen years before, when she had achieved the crowning ambition of her life by becoming the Countess of Weston. Indeed, he doubted if he had spent any more time with Alicia over the past twelve years than he had with Megan.
Both females, for different reasons, were very much on the periphery of his life. And his Aunt Sophronsia, of whom he was marginally fond, had made it clear to him from the outset that she refused to do more than be decently civil to Megan if they should happen to meet in public. It had been forcibly impressed on Justin—by Stanton, of course, who had conceived a fondness for the girl—that Megan must soon be liberated from the schoolroom.
The mere thought made Justin wince. He had a lively dread of being forced to guide a rag-mannered, high-spirited, disobedient minx through the pitfalls of a London Season practically single-handed. His female relations would be no help. So be it. He was so hungry that he could have eaten the nag beneath him, if there had been any more to it than skin and bone. It took a considerable amount of sustenance to keep his six-foot, two-inch, well-muscled and very active body at its best. He had had nothing but a mug of ale and a cold scone all day.
No wonder his stomach was making its displeasure felt! And he was getting colder by the minute. It was impossible for him to get any wetter; the rain showed not the slightest sign of slacking off. There was no moon, so it was impossible to see any of the surrounding countryside, which would in any case have been obscured by the relentless rain, but he knew the way well enough and was in no danger of slipping into one of the treacherous bogs with which the area abounded.
As he drew close to the house, at last, Justin was surprised to see that the place was ablaze with light. Perhaps Stanton had managed to advise the Donovans of his impending arrival, and they were waiting to welcome him? There was no one in the stables to receive his horse. Annoyed, he unsaddled the beast himself, rubbing it down, clapping a feedbag to its nose. Lord he was hungry. As he mounted the shallow flight of stairs that led up to the front door of the three-storied stone house, he was astounded to hear music.
Irish music. The music was loud as Justin let himself into the house. The hall was deserted. He made his way down the long hall to the door of the blue salon, the source of the music. His booted feet and the irritable slapping of his gloves against his thigh brought no one to question his presence.
He opened the door. What he saw stopped him in his tracks. Astonishment kept him silent; it was hard to believe his eyes. Donovan was flush-faced, his white hair in a mad tumble, the tails of his black coat flying. His portly, giggling wife was—well, drunk.
Every one of the thirty-odd people in the room appeared to be drunk. They were dancing wild Irish dances, with much foot-stomping and hand-clapping. A rag-tag band of minstrels played long and hard. Unnoticed by everyone, Justin leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb and crossed his arms over his chest, the better to observe this foolishness.
A sardonic smile played about his lips as he waited for his servants to become aware of his presence.