London, August 1815
‘Jilt him!’ Susanna Hunter repeated the stranger’s demand in utter disbelief. ‘You wish me to end my betrothal to Sir Jason Mountjoy!’
She eyed the soldier seated on the edge of one of the gilded chairs which were set in carefully casual clusters around the large drawing room of her parents’ London town house. Captain Lamont’s uniform was ragged, hanging far too loose on his large frame. His boots were much patched and covered in a film of dust, as if he had marched here all the way from Waterloo, for goodness sake. His hair was cropped. Auburn, what there was of it, it stood up in short angry spikes. Aside from the vivid red welt of the scar on his forehead, his skin had the ashen pallor of suffering, stretched so taut over his cheek bones as to give him the look of a cadaver. His eyes though, a strange colour between tawny and gold, burned with the light of a man on a mission.
Susanna peered nervously over her shoulder at the drawing room door. Charles, her father’s footman would be hovering just outside it, she knew, for he had been loathe to leave her alone in the first place. Was Captain Lamont dangerous? He had obviously been grievously ill. In fact, he looked as if he should be on his sickbed still. Despite the outrageous demand he had made of her, she softened. ‘May I get you some refreshment?’
‘I did not come calling to take tea, Miss Hunter,’ he replied, drawing her a scornful look. ‘ I came to tell you…’
‘Not to marry the man to whom I have been betrothed for two years,’ Susanna interrupted tartly. So much for compassion!
Surprised by the sharpness in her tone, Fergus Lamont surveyed the young woman afresh. In her pale yellow gown, with her dark hair scraped back from her face, she had seemed to him every bit the prettily insipid debutante Mountjoy implied. He was no expert of feminine furbelows, but even he could see that the colour of her gown made her olive skin seem sallow, and now that he looked more closely, it looked as if her blue-black curls were fighting to escape their pins. There was, however, nothing at all insipid about her eyes. No longer demurely downcast, they were her best feature, a grey which was almost silver, thickly fringed with black lashes, and right at this moment, flashing fire. Perhaps after all, he could rile her into the defiance he so badly needed in order to exact his longed-for revenge on Mountjoy. ‘He calls you his sweet-tempered heiress, did you know that?’
His tone was deliberately insulting, and Fergus was rewarded with a flush which might well be temper, staining Susanna Hunter’s pretty neck. His hopes rose as her lip curled, but fell as it just as quickly straightened. ‘Jason says it is one of things that he loves most about me, that I am not the type of female who must forever be hearing my own voice.’
‘’Tis a pity he does not feel the same about his own,’ Fergus responded bitterly. Those big grey eyes had lost their spark. He was loosing her. ‘Do you love him?’
‘Jason is handsome and charming. Mama assures me there could be no better match.’
‘Don’t you care that he is marrying you for your money?’
‘It would be foolish of me to pretend that my fortune is not significant, but men like Sir Jason Mountjoy do not marry for money,’ she replied with a dignity that would have impressed Fergus, were he not certain she was simply parroting her mother as she smoothed the folds of her gown, once more refusing to meet his eyes.
The flush had crept up, staining her cheeks now. Her eyes were bright, not with defiance but unshed tears that under any other circumstances would have given Fergus pause. But not today. Fergus thumped his fist on his knee, and leapt to his feet. ‘Do you know what he’s really like, this man you intend to marry? An aide, he calls himself. A messenger boy is what he actually is, and a damned poor one at that. Do you have any idea of the carnage he wrought? Ach, but why should you care any more than he, that his carelessness cost God knows how many lives! By God lassie, if I could shake sense into you I would.’
Susanna flinched, only just resisting the desire to flee. Far from the walking cadaver he had been a few moments ago, Captain Lamont now seemed lit from the inside. There was something both intimidating and magnificent in the way he threw those caustic words at her. His Scots accent broadened as his temper took hold. As he stood there, shoulders back, glaring at her, she saw the ghost of the man he had been, proud and bold, with a natural authority and a rather barbaric charm.
Awareness of this hit Susanna with a shocking jolt. Under different circumstances, she would have found him extremely attractive. Mortified, she straightened her spine. ‘Captain Lamont, I can see that you have suffered much…’
A harsh crack of laughter greeted this remark. ‘Not half as much as some, and not near as much as that blackguard Mountjoy deserves.’
Susanna’s temper, a very small and timid creature which rarely saw the light of day, began to stir. It irked her that Jason insisted that the war was no topic for a lady, but that did not mean she wished Captain Lamont to educate her. She took a deep breath and got to her feet. ‘It is obvious that you hold some sort of grudge against my betrothed. However, I fail to see what it has to do with me, and more importantly, I cannot understand what possible business you think my marriage is of yours. I am sorry for your suffering and wish you a sound recovery, but I must ask you to leave.’
She turned towards the door, upon the brink of congratulating herself for having managed such a difficult situation, when he grabbed her by the arm. ‘I haven’t yet told you why you must rid yourself of the scoundrel.’
The sleeves of Susanna’s gown were long, be-ribboned and fitted tight to the wrist, but she could feel the burning heat of his fingers as if her arms were bare. Captain Lamont’s grip was tight enough to bruise. Close up, his eyes had a golden rim around them. His stubble too had a golden glint to it. Despite his grubby appearance, he smelled of soap. She was acutely conscious of him, not as a soldier but as a man. ‘Release me at once,.’ Her voice sounded pitiably unconvincing.
‘You have to listen to me.’
Whatever lies he wanted to impart, he obviously believed them. The desperation in his voice made Susanna even more convinced that she must quiet him for her own peace of mind. She tried once more to shake herself free, only to find herself in what felt shockingly like an embrace. ‘If you do not release me, I will call a servant.’
He ignored her. ‘It was a bloodbath, you know.’ Captain Lamont swallowed compulsively. Sweat beaded on his brow under the line of the bandage. ‘He blamed me for it all,’ he continued harshly. ‘Said I was the one who had misinterpreted the orders, not him. But it’s not just on the battlefield he avoids responsibility, that’s what you need to know. If it was not you’re your being promised to him, he’d have been clapped in debtor’s prison months ago, and what he owes to the tradesmen is doubtless nothing to what he has lost on the tables. He’s counting on you to make it all good, his sweet-tempered heiress.’
‘Stop it! Stop calling me that. All gentlemen have debts. Jason loves me.’
Another of those harsh cracks of laughter. ‘You and a hundred others.’
Susanna froze. ‘What do you mean?’
‘He has a pretty way with complements, does he not? He uses it to very good effect, charming the officers’ wives and making their daughters sigh over him. Of course, he saves his most intimate of favours for those who cannot complain when they are left dealing with the consequences of his passion. As they must, Miss Hunter, for Mountjoy will not.’ His grip on her arms tightened. ‘Mountjoy left at least one of his side-slips on the continent when he returned to London, did you know that?’
‘How dare you! Stop it! I will not listen!’
‘You must jilt him. You have to make him pay. Mountjoy has hurt too many innocents already. Don’t let him make you his next victim.’
Disbelief, shock and outrage sent Susanna’s head spinning. She could not think straight. All she wanted was to rid herself of this man who for reasons best known to himself seemed bent upon her destruction.
Unwilling to admit to the horrible premonition of truth underlying it all, she turned her anger upon the bearer of tidings. ‘Do not insult me by trying to pretend that you give a – a damn about me. All you want to do is to hurt Jason, and if you have to use me, trample over me or any other innocent party in the process, then you will. Spare me the noble gesture, if you please. I am simply a pawn in your game, and I have absolutely no intentions of changing the course of my life because you wish me to.’
Her visitor looked genuinely aghast. ‘You cannot possibly mean to marry Mountjoy after what I’ve told you.’
‘What do you suggest I do instead? Marry you?’ Susanna spoke without thinking, caught up in the wholly unfamiliar and strangely heady fire of fury which possessed her. The need to hurt this man in return for the hurt he was inflicting made her reckless. ‘Judging from the sad state of your clothing, Captain, you are obviously in dire need of funds. Marriage to a sweet-tempered heiress might be just the thing for you.’
To her surprise, the jibe made him smile faintly. ‘Not so sweet-tempered now though, are you? Don’t do it, Susanna.’
His tone had a sense of urgency which gave sickening credence to his accusations. His use of her name made her abruptly conscious of the intimacy of their stance. She could feel his breath on her cheek. There were muscles of steel under that gaunt frame of his. The smile gave her another fleeting glimpse of the man he must have been. Powerful. Confident. Charismatic. Attractive. Extremely attractive. Her mouth went dry. Her skin prickled with heat. ‘You are being ridiculous.’
‘Susanna, don’t do it. You could do so much better than Mountjoy.’
His hand slid down her arm, snaking round her waist and pulling her against him. Hard body, surprisingly solid. His thighs brushed hers. She felt hot, cold, giddy. Jason had never held her so close. She looked up, trying to think of something to say, and met Captain Lamont’s eyes. Tawny and gold, no longer despairing but something else, something that made her heart beat faster, that made her belly clench. She opened her mouth to speak, felt herself jerked tight against him.
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