Wicked in Your Arms Page 1

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Prologue

The Royal Palace of Maldania . . .

He lived.

This was Sevastian’s sole burning thought as he advanced down the wide sunlit corridor. Not the blood seeping from the gash in his forehead and dripping thickly into his eye. Not the fact that he hadn’t slept in days, and even then that sleep had been fractured and restless with artillery fire ripping deep wounds into the earth outside his tent. He lived and was not rotting away on a battlefield like so many of his comrades.

He was alive and breathing and whole.

His booted heels clacked a cold, precise rhythm. He’d ceased to leave a trail of mud and blood several yards back. Every inch of him was covered in filth, blood and matter he dared not consider. He would dream nightmares of it later. He was a wretched sight, his once fine uniform beyond recognition, but he felt invigorated, victorious.

His footsteps rang out sharply over the marble floor, the same floor his ancestors had trod generations before him. A ragged breath tripped from his lips. The same floor his progeny would walk. Now that the war was over, that much was all but guaranteed. Whether it happened depended upon him. The weight of this new responsibility settled over him, tightening his shoulders.

His shadow stretched long over the stained-glass windows lining the corridor. His breath still fell fast from his hard ride to reach here—to be the first one to tell the king that it was finally over.

He nodded to the master guards standing sentry on either side of the massive double doors of the king’s bedchamber. Their heels snapped together sharply at his presence.

He knocked once before entering. The king sat in a high-backed chair before a floor to ceiling window that overlooked the valley Sevastian had just ridden hell-bent through to arrive here. In the distance, where the mountains rose beyond the snow-blanketed valley, dark smoke rose in great plumes, reaching to the heavens.

The old man looked Sevastian’s way, the tight lines of his face easing immediately at the sight of him. “You’re alive,” he whispered, his voice cracking with emotion. Moisture filled his eyes.

Sevastian nodded. Dropping on a knee before his king, he dipped his head and bowed low. “The kingdom is yours, Your Highness. The enemy is vanquished. Marsan is dead and the rest of the rebels have surrendered.”

The king’s gnarled hand came down on his head in a fierce caress. “You’ve prevailed. I knew you would.”

He grimaced, watching as his blood dripped onto the king’s royal robes. Over the years he hadn’t felt the same conviction. He’d only known that he must prevail—or die.

He rose to his feet. The king closed his eyes in a weary blink, clearly grappling with the fact that the bloody ten-year-long rebellion had come to an end at last. It was a struggle for Sevastian, too. He’d grown to manhood amid war and death. It was all he knew.

The king seized his hand, his grip surprisingly strong for one in such weak health. “You know what must be done now. And quickly. This country needs a bright light as we emerge from the dark. You must give them that. Feed them hope, the promise of better days to come.”

Sevastian’s throat thickened. “I shall not fail you, Grandfather.”

“Of course you won’t.”

“I know my duty. It shall be done.”

Chapter One

Two months later . . .

“You mean Miss Hadley?”

At the sound of her name Grier stopped chewing, her mouth stuffed full of her third frosted biscuit. Or perhaps it was her fourth. The tasty treats were thus far the highlight of her evening, but hearing her name mentioned with such ridicule amid titters of laughter turned the food to dust on her tongue.

The voices continued, and she pressed farther back into a column, as if she could somehow disappear into the plaster. “Well, she is rather . . .” The rest of their words were lost in a burst of guffaws.

Grier sucked in a deep breath, knowing that whatever the biddies had said was far from complimentary. She knew this with the same certainty that she knew they were speaking about her and not her half-sister. Not that she and Cleo weren’t both a favored subject for the sniggering busybodies of the ton , but somehow Grier had received the brunt of attention as they went about Town.

She glanced down at herself, quickly assessing. The burgundy gown was the height of fashion, the color rich and flattering against her dusky complexion. The modiste had assured her she would stand out against all the other watered-down milksop misses on the market for a husband.

She grimaced. At the time, she thought standing out an advantage. What better way to attract some blueblood, after all? A proper gentleman to give her the stamp of respectability she had long craved. Standing out amid the other females, she’d reasoned, could only be a good thing. Now she wasn’t so sure.

She’d endured many colorful designations since her entrée into Society a fortnight past. None complimentary. And yet she’d braced herself for that. Her father’s fortune might gain her admittance to the finest drawing rooms, but it did not mean everyone would don a kind smile for the likes of her.

Nothing she’d endured, however, was intolerable enough to send her fleeing London with her tail tucked between her skirts. She lifted her chin and took another bite from her biscuit. She’d be a proper lady yet. In time, she’d marry a gentleman and everyone would forget her low beginnings. She’d have respectability at last, the pains of her youth forgotten.

Stiffening her spine with this heartening reminder, she swallowed her bite and took a sip from her glass. Besides, nothing awaited her at home. Nothing save loneliness. Long, looming years where she would suffer everyone’s pity. Or censure. She was hard-pressed to say which was worse.

Ready to rejoin the masses, she peered through the fronds of the large potted fern that hid her from view. The two busybodies still lingered, their turbaned heads angled close, as if that would somehow stop anyone from overhearing their indiscreet voices.

“You do mean Miss Grier Hadley, of course.” The other woman tsked and Grier supposed the sound was meant to be sympathetic. “She’s such an unfortunate female. So . . . tall .”

The way the word tall was uttered, Grier was certain she meant to say something else.

“Indeed.” The other matron clucked. “And so very dark, too. Did she labor in the fields before Hadley unearthed her?”

They shared a look and burst out laughing.

Grier snorted. They weren’t far from the truth. She rolled her eyes at their guffaws, understanding perfectly their nasty humor. And yet her sturdy form and sun-browned complexion were the least of her flaws in their eyes. She wondered what they would say if she told them how she came to be so sun-browned. That before coming to Town she spent her time riding across the countryside in men’s trousers, shooting game, jumping fences, and then, to cool off, stripping her garments to swim in secluded ponds, nothing between her and God’s eyes except the wind. A secret smile curved her lips as she imagined their horror.

Tall and dark . They could have described her much worse indeed. They could have called her a bastard. She’d heard that often enough growing up. They could have declared her unfit for their elite company. And yet they dared not. Her father was none other than Jack Hadley, a renowned gaming hell owner, better known as the king of London’s underworld for all his dabbling in vice and corruption.

Perhaps not the most sterling of recommendations, but here she stood, in the ballroom of one of the ton ’s finest homes, the special friend of Her Grace, the Dowager Duchess of Bolingbroke.

The guests could titter all they liked behind their hands, but abide her they would. Her fat dowry guaranteed that. The dowager had made it widely known that Jack Hadley’s daughters had her full-fledged stamp of approval, and if one wished for the dowager and her three grandsons to attend any fête, then the disreputable Hadleys were to be invited as well.

Grier harbored no misconceptions concerning the dowager’s generosity. She knew she would never have gained the old dame’s favor and entry past the doorman tonight if not for the dowry her father dangled like a carrot before every bride-seeking blueblood of the ton . The dowager possessed three grandsons, all as destitute as she was. The only thing left to the Bolingbroke title was . . . well . . . the title.

Just then the biddies discussing her flaws noticed her amid the fronds. Their eyes bulged in affront. It took every ounce of will she possessed not to stick her tongue out at them. They might not like rubbing elbows with her kind, but their kind clearly needed her. At least they needed her father’s money.

With noses in the air, they marched away.

Grier pressed her fingers to her mouth, stifling a giggle. She moved from her hiding spot to refill her glass of lemon water. With replenished drink in hand, she moved back down the buffet table and tucked herself once again behind the fern. Once again out of sight.

Even better, two gentlemen chose to stand before the fern at that moment, making her even more inconspicuous. Especially as one of them was quite tall and successfully towered over the potted fern. Feeling safe again, she took a refreshing sip and munched on another biscuit. Perhaps she could hide here all night until her father collected her.

The mention of her name quickly quelled such daydreams.

Holy hellfire . Again? Need she endure further slurs against her person? Even though she knew she should simply turn and leave, she froze, her feet rooted to the parquet floor as she eyed the two figures before her. While one was exceedingly tall, the other man barely came to her chin.

“The Misses Hadley are quite the catch, Sevastian. We should not leave them off your list,” the shorter man said.

Unease settled in the pit of her stomach at mention of a list . She failed to recognize either gentleman, but then she only had a view of their backs. Still, the shorter man’s shock of red hair would be hard to forget.

“These are the two bastards you mentioned?” the tall man demanded in a flat, emotionless voice.

She bit back her gasp at this bald question, and glared at the back of his dark head, her skin prickling with indignation at his rudeness.

He continued, his speech rolling and rich, laced with an accent she could not place. “The daughters of some unsavory criminal ? And only God knows what female? Truly, Malcolm, you must jest. They scarcely sound eligible. My country is in dire straits, but not that dire. Grandfather would have a seizure at the mere suggestion of tainting the Maksimi bloodline with bastard blood, and you should well know that, cousin.”

A royal then? That explained the haughty attitude. She sniffed. Explained. Not pardoned.

She began chewing again, her teeth working with a vengeance as she glared between leafy fronds at this, this . . . Sevastian .

He was big. And not just tall. Broad shoulders stretched the fine fabric of his evening attire. She could not detect an ounce of fat, or a stitch of padding. She sniffed indelicately. His waist was trim, his h*ps narrow and lean. Not the standard among tonnish gentlemen. He reminded her more of the men back home—men accustomed to hard work.

Odd, to be certain. This arrogant peacock probably spent all of his time practicing fencing or some such worthless activity that kept him in passable shape. She doubted he could do anything truly manly or strenuous. She yanked at her biscuit with a savage tear, sending crumbs tumbling to the floor as she assessed what she could see of his rigid form. Bloody prig.

He probably couldn’t even sit a mount properly or shoot a rifle with enough skill to actually hit his target. Why should his opinion matter? Why should it sting so? A faceless man that she could probably trounce.

Because he only speaks what everyone here already thinks.

She shook her head slightly, frowning at the unwelcome notion. She’d known this wouldn’t be easy. She was seen as an intruder and tolerated, not embraced. Much as at home.

“I’ve been here a fortnight, Malcolm.” Sevastian’s voice rumbled deeply over the air, his faint accent thickening his speech. A manly rumble, she allowed. She might even have found the accent attractive if he had not proven himself an arrogant boor with every word uttered. “You promised to present me with viable candidates and this is all you can suggest to me? A pair of bastards with an ignominious father? Are the chits even lettered?”

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