The despicable Baron Finley is the last man Lady Olivia Fairfax would want as her husband, but what choice does she have? He holds the secret to a family scandal, and she must bow to his blackmail or see herself and her brother publicly disgraced. Steeling her resolve--and shielding her heart--Olivia is prepared to do her duty to her family...until Nicholas Stuart, the Marquess of Huntsford, complicates her plans. Nick is brave, honorable, infuriatingly attractive and unshakably determined to protect Olivia--even from herself. He won't let Olivia sacrifice her happiness for any price. Instead, he'll teach her to follow her heart...and pray that it leads her straight to him.
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February 01, 2011
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Excerpt from The Blackmailed Bride by Mandy Goff
"You should probably stand up now." Lady Olivia Fairfax looked at the gentleman kneeling by her feet and barely resisted the urge to kick him.
"Not before you consent to be my wife," the Viscount Danfield said.
She suppressed a sigh. "I'm afraid you'll be there for quite some time, then." Rising from her chair, she moved several steps away, ill at ease with the young man so close to her. "I could ask someone to fetch a pillow for your knees, if you wish--I assume the floor will grow uncomfortable eventually."
Viscount Danfield was unfazed. "You jest with me."
"I assure you, I do not," she argued.
He blinked. "Surely you see the wisdom in this arrangement."
"I doubt I, or anyone else, would call a union between us wise." Olivia hated her necessary cruelty but, goodness, this was his third proposal.
"But your brother has consented," he said, grabbing the corner of a table and struggling to his feet.
"Marcus agreed you may ask. He never guaranteed my answer."
Judging from Lord Danfield's confused expression, he didn't understand the difference.
At the less-than-discreet sound of a throat being cleared, both Olivia and Danfield turned toward the open door of the morning room.
Gibbons, the family butler, stood in the entryway with a brocade pillow. "I see I have not been quick enough," the elderly man said with a sigh. "Should I leave this here for the next time he proposes, Lady Olivia?"
Olivia smothered a laugh, grateful--for once--for Gibbons' penchant for eavesdropping. "That will be fine."
After depositing the pillow on the nearest chair and turning to leave, Gibbons looked back at Danfield. "Next time, my lord, might I suggest a bit of poetry and perhaps a song or two?"
The obtuse viscount furrowed his brow. "Would it work?"
"No. But I, for one, would find it vastly more entertaining than your usual attempts."
Danfield stared after Gibbons's retreating figure, trying to discern whether he'd been insulted. It took him a surprisingly long time.
In spite of her aggravation, Olivia couldn't help but feel the faintest stirrings of pity for the young man. "I think we would better part as friends," she suggested. Perhaps niceness would make her refusal easier to handle.
Never one to take unnecessary chances, however, Olivia edged her way toward the door, hoping he would follow.
"We have always been great friends, haven't we?" he agreed, a little too enthusiastically.
She nodded, wondering how two months in London gave the man leave to claim anything of permanence between them but willing to agree in order to speed his leaving.
"Which is why we should marry," he said with a nod. "It's just as Mother said this morning, 'The best marriages grow on mutual indifference that is rooted in the soil of friendship.'"
"Your mother is...profound...beyond comprehension." Which was the least insulting thing she could think to say about the staid, arrogant matriarch.
A smile lit his face. "I'm glad you agree. And when I tell you Mother has graciously agreed to instruct you on the art of governing the household affairs after our nuptials...well, I can only imagine how delighted that must make you," he said.
"How magnanimous," Olivia muttered through gritted teeth, wondering who he thought had overseen the affairs at Westin Park for the last five years. Whatever inklings of pity she'd felt dissipated.
Danfield missed the warning in her tone. "We--Mother and I--are also concerned over your tendency to bury your nose in a book. That can't be healthy for a woman. You'll go blind. And, really, Lady Danfield suggested you learn to think before you speak. Your frankness is fairly scandalizing."
Olivia rolled her eyes. "Is it, now?"
Danfield stiffened. "Most women would be grateful we are prepared to help."
"Well," Olivia said, brushing her hands together, "you should begin looking for this other paragon. For the last time, Lord Danfield, I will not marry you."
The refusal seemed to register. His smile fell, and his shoulders sagged. "Will anything change your mind?"
She shook her head.
After a pause, he said, "I think, perhaps, this might."
He strode toward her, smoothly stepping around the furniture obstacles, and Olivia had no recourse but to retreat, until she was flush against the wall. Danfield's hot breath puffed against her face.
He was going to kiss her. And her reaction when she realized this was purely instinctual.
She flailed her arms behind her and grabbed a vase off a side table.
And hit him in the head.
The young man fell to the floor with a dull thud, covered in bits of broken pottery.
Wonderful. She'd killed a peer of the realm.
Olivia knelt beside the viscount, wondering if she should loosen his cravat, find some smelling salts or perhaps retrieve a wet cloth for him. Although she doubted any of those considerations would be helpful if he were dead.
Reaching out, Olivia shook his shoulder gently, hoping to elicit a response. A groan? A flinch? An apology perhaps?
If the worst had happened, however, Olivia reasoned that as the sister of an earl she would get special privileges in Newgate Prison. Such as an extra cup of water a day. Or a stick to beat back the rats.
She was so engrossed by her bleak future as a prisoner of the Crown she jumped at the pained moan of the supposedly dead viscount.
"Lord Danfield?" she asked hesitantly. No response. "Are you quite well?" Still nothing.
Olivia stood. If the man weren't dead, he didn't appear to be in a hurry to leave. She hadn't the time to wait on him to do so, either.
There was nothing to be done but tell her brother. If she caught him in a jovial mood, Marcus might find the situation amusing.
Although, she thought, probably not.
Fortunately--or perhaps not--her brother was easy to find.
"Through already?" Marcus, the Earl of Westin, asked, startling her as he approached from behind. "I suppose you could say that."
He chuckled. "Amazing. I thought we would have to knock him out and drag him away just to get him out of the house."
"I suppose you could say that, too." Olivia wrung her hands together.
Her brother appeared oblivious to her distress. "An old friend of mine will be joining us for luncheon today..." But an anguished groan echoed through the hall, interrupting his thought.
"What was that?" Marcus walked in the groan's direction. "Let me explain before you--" Olivia tried, hurrying after him.
She winced as Marcus bellowed her name before she could catch up with him.
Marcus fixed her with a hard stare. "What happened in here?"
"There was a bit of an accident." She wouldn't meet his gaze. "At least he's alive," she offered.
Marcus stopped his pacing. "Was that ever in question?"
Olivia thought it best not to comment. But then, she heard the crunch of a shard of vase under Marcus's heel and cringed.
Olivia watched as her brother knelt to pick up a fragment of his artifact. "Please tell me that's not my Ming Dynasty vase in pieces on the floor?"
"All right," she said slowly. "It's not--" only to be silenced by a wave of his hand.
"Never mind that," he huffed. "We have to get him back to his house."
She and Marcus were studying the unmoving viscount when Gibbons reappeared in the doorway. "Lord Westin, Lady Olivia, his lordship, the Marquess of Huntsford is here."
Nick processed the scene before him in less than two minutes. Then, he spent sixty seconds deciding whether he should turn and walk back out the door. His friend Marcus was staring at his butler, who was stifling a chuckle. What appeared to be the recently deceased Viscount Danfield was lying on the floor with pieces of pottery sprinkled around his head.
After years of acquaintance fostered through attending the same schools and the same endless society functions, Nick could well sympathize with the desire to hit Danfield over the head with whatever came to hand, yet he couldn't help but wonder who was responsible for the attack. Marcus certainly appeared murderously angry, but his eyes glared daggers at the butler, who was showing no signs of sorrow at the loss of Danfield's company in such a permanent manner. And as for the last person in the room...
The lady in the center of the fray made Nick forget everything else he'd seen. She was staring at him, her expression a mixture of surprise and something he couldn't identify, couldn't name--wasn't sure he wanted to.
The butler finally broke the silence. "You requested earlier, my lord, that I show his lordship in immediately upon his arrival."
"Would it not have been prudent to make sure our last guest had departed first?" Marcus asked.
"Perhaps if the two of you would refrain from rendering your guests immobile, such conflicts could be easily avoided," Gibbons sniffed.
Nick's head swiveled back and forth between the two combatants.
Before Marcus could retort, the gentleman on the floor decided to make a last, impressive rally. He struggled onto his elbows and groaned. "Wha-what happened?"
Nick waited to hear the explanation himself, but neither brother nor sister answered.
"You," Danfield said, looking at the Lady Olivia. "You did this." He remained propped on one elbow and used his free hand to massage the back of his head.
Every eye, including Nick's, turned to look at the young woman who appeared to be trying to edge behind her brother. In spite of the seriousness of the moment, Nick felt a chuckle lodge in his throat. The dainty lady hardly looked capable of physical violence. But the evidence was rather irrefutable.
He didn't know whether to applaud her handiness or say a prayer for his own well-being.
"It was a misunderstanding," the young woman defended.
"My...my mother will hear..." The words died as the butler slid his foot out to knock the man's elbow from under him. Without the support, Danfield fell back to the floor, bumping his head again on the way.
The siblings and Nick turned to stare at the butler.
"He was starting to aggravate me," the older man said with a shrug.
Marcus looked around at the occupants in the room. "Has everyone lost hold of their senses?"
"I still have mine, I think," Nick said as he knelt over the viscount and raised the man's eyelids one after another, looking at them intently.
At least he appeared to be still alive. "We should get him home before he wakes up again," Nick suggested.
"I'll have a carriage brought around," the butler intoned, disappearing into the hallway.
After carrying the viscount to his carriage, Nick stood back while Marcus slipped several banknotes into the driver's hands and whispered instructions. Seconds later, the coachman flicked the reins, and the conveyance rumbled down the road.
Nick dutifully followed the pair of siblings into a sitting room, curious to hear whatever explanation the lady had to offer. Not that he minded a bit of excitement, of course, provided he wasn't the unconscious body on the floor.
Once in the room, Marcus's sister, the Lady Olivia, curtsied to him again and began edging toward the door. "I'll leave you two to yourselves. Surely, there is a great deal of catching up to be done." She then practically ran toward the cracked opening and supposed safety.
"I think you should stay awhile." Marcus's voice stopped her hasty retreat.
"Whatever for?" Her tone suggested he would be wiser to simply let her walk away.
"Allow me first to make introductions." Marcus turned toward Nick. "I hope you'll forgive the rather odd circumstances you found upon your arrival and meet the cause of them, my sister, Lady Olivia."
Nick took a few steps forward and bowed over her hand. "A pleasure," he murmured, smiling to himself when she blushed.
Thick lashes framed her dark eyes, which widened as he spoke. She was more beautiful than he'd originally thought. As she stood close to the window, the sun streaming in made her hair seem as though the rich brown was shot through with threads of amber.
He was unaware he was still lightly holding her hand until she hastily withdrew it. The blush on her cheeks deepened, and Marcus's sister glanced with apparent nervousness at him and then her brother.
"And, Olivia, this is Nick, my old friend and the new Marquess of Huntsford."
Nick watched as she dropped a flawless curtsy.
"Well, I suppose I should leave you to your meeting, brother." She briskly turned on her heel and this time made good her escape before her brother could stop her.
Nick was sad to see her go.
He turned back to Marcus, who was looking at the open door with a mix of harried resignation and amusement. Nick was familiar with the look--Marcus often wore it when they were in school together, while reading letters from his sister.
"Your sister is an interesting woman," Nick commented.
Marcus stared at him for a long moment, then grinned.
"Interesting is a good word. If she weren't my sister I would maybe say troublesome..." Marcus let the sentence trail off.
"Are you implying there's been more than one suitor found unconscious on your floor?"
His friend shook his head, "No, but I've fielded a fair amount of offers for her."
Nick could understand that. Lady Olivia was a beauty. A beauty who probably had an uncommonly large dowry, and came from an old, highly respected family. Those factors combined would be enough to have every young buck and eligible bachelor knocking on the front door.
"I can't see how that would be anything but good. Isn't the point of the Season to marry off all the young, single ladies?" Nick asked.
"If it is the point, someone needs to tell Olivia that. She's determined to spurn the offer of any man who asks. And I nearly have to twist her arm to get her to attend a ball."
The lady grew more puzzling with each revelation. Wasn't it every woman's ambition to marry? To enjoy a glamorous Season in London, filled with balls, dinner parties and elegant luncheons?
And if those weren't her aims, why was Marcus insisting on her attendance?
What reason would any sane man have for enduring--even wanting--to experience the fripperies of the Season?
"Don't tell me you're here looking for a wife," Nick said in mock horror.
Marcus shuddered. "Absolutely not. I've no interest in marriage. At least not right now. I'd like to see Olivia settled with a suitable gentleman before I turn my own ambitions to the marriage mart."
If finding a husband for his sister was his friend's goal, Nick thought Marcus was going to have his hands full. If this trip to London was solely for his sister's benefit--who showed not even the slightest inkling of interest in marriage--Marcus would likely end up being in London for a long time.
"What about you?" Marcus asked. "What's made you come to town--to England, for that matter--after all those years on the continent?"
"Other than your father's death," Marcus said before Nick could decide exactly what to say. "I heard about that, and I'm sorry."