Only Marriage Will Do is available on Amazon.
Only Marriage Will Do
by Jenna Jaxon
July 2, 1761
The brass lion-head knocker under Amiable Dawson’s hand sent a sharp rap through the dark walnut door of Dunham House for the second time. The hot July sun hadn’t done his temper any good as he waited on the marble stoop for entrance to the Marquess of Dalbury’s townhouse. He’d been in a foul mood ever since the news of his beloved Katarina’s marriage to the marquess had reached him. Blast it to hell, the girl had accepted his proposal. At least he could make sure she was well and well taken care of by this man she had married.
At last a short, dark-haired maid opened the door. She took one look at him, gasped, and stepped back into the house. Her eyes widened and she glanced to her right, wringing her hands. “Who may I say—”
A man shouted from within. “No, I do not believe you.”
“I do not care what you believe. I told you the truth.” A woman’s voice, raised and sharp with terror, sent a chill through Amiable.
Katarina. What in God’s name?
He barged past the stunned girl and strode down the hall toward the commotion. He burst through the doorway, expecting to defend the woman he loved, only to stop dead at the sight of a man lunging across a sofa and grasping a woman by the wrist. Amiable had half drawn his sword before he realized the woman was not Katarina, but a complete stranger. He dropped the weapon back into its scabbard. None of his affair after all.
The young man, foppishly dressed in a robin’s egg blue satin coat dripping too many layers of frothy lace at throat and wrists, looked at Amiable, a snarl on his lips.
Taking advantage of the distraction, the woman wrenched her arm from the man’s grip. “Praise God. He has arrived at last.” She staggered as she righted herself. “Now you will have to believe me, Philippe.”
The fop scrambled back off the sofa and groped for a black lacquer walking stick that lay on the floor. Lips pressed together, he glowered at the woman. “That remains to be seen, ma chère. In any case, I have shown you the papers. They speak for themselves.”
The woman ran from behind the sofa to Amiable’s side, grazed a kiss over his cheek, and whispered, “For God’s sake, help me. I am alone and he wants to force me to go with him. Please, agree with whatever I say.”
He smiled into her pleading face, then grasped her hands and gave them a gentle squeeze to signal his acquiescence. “Whatever is the matter, my dear?” Hell if he knew. However, he could play his part, even with little information. Let the lady lead and he’d follow as well as he could.
The woman swayed toward him, then took a deep breath. “My dear, may I present Viscount St. Cyr?” She nodded toward the fop. “Philippe, my husband, the Earl of Manning.”
Amiable froze. This woman had married Katarina’s brother? If so, he certainly had an obligation to protect her. But where the devil was Jack? He bowed to the man and said simply, “My lord.”
“Philippe and I were betrothed for a short time last year, my dear. Before the scandal put an end to it.” Trembling, she stared St. Cyr down.
“That was none of my doing, Juliet. My father broke the betrothal, not I.” He spoke English with a cultured French accent that inserted an impassioned plea that wavered by the end.
“Then I must write a letter of gratitude to the Count de Mallain.” Juliet rubbed her wrist, shot a look at St. Cyr, then drew closer to Amiable’s side. The afternoon sun glinted off a tear in the gold trim of her rose gown. “He saved me from making a dire mistake.”
“Juliet, how can you say such things?” St. Cyr grasped his walking stick and twisted the knob. “We are meant to be together, chérie. I thought of nothing but you the whole long year we have been apart.”
“That is hardly your concern now, my lord.” Arching his neck, Amiable stared down his nose at the distasteful man. “The lady is my wife and however much you may regret losing her, I must ask you to refrain from such statements of affection lest it become a matter of honor.” He itched to lay his hand to his sword again but did not wish for the situation to escalate. Yet.
“Oh, but it is my concern, my lord.” The Frenchman stalked toward them, one deliberate step after another. “I have the prior claim to dear Juliet. In fact, I must insist you remove your hands from my wife immediately.”
“Your wife?” Amiable scowled at the Frenchman, although his resolve slipped. Had he stuck his nose into a proper quarrel between husband and wife? Would he never learn to control his impetuous nature? Certainly not if it concerned a woman in distress, it seemed. He pushed Juliet behind him.
“You must stop saying that, Philippe. I am not your wife.” Tears glistened, and the woman blinked them back.
He admired courage in a woman. She might not be his Katarina, but she deserved his protection nonetheless.
“Why would you claim such a thing, man?” he demanded. “Juliet and I were married properly, with the banns read and in a church.” Too late he prayed she had given the man no particulars before he had arrived.
“Our ceremony was no less proper. The magistrate performed it before witnesses.”
“Why have you not spoken to me of this, my dear?” He peered down at the golden hair, demurely confined beneath a lacy cap. Best give the woman her head. He’d become quite interested himself in what had transpired with her.
“I never married him, Jack, you must believe me.” She sank her fingers into his arm in a death grip as her eyes sent a desperate plea for his confidence in her. “I never spoke my vows to him.”
“You did not need to, chérie, as you well know. Jeanette spoke them for you,” St. Cyr snapped, his voice loud in the small room.
Lord, give me strength… “Who the devil is Jeanette? If she spoke the vows, then you are married to her, my lord. Not Lady Manning.”
St. Cyr sneered. “The Marquess of Dalbury sent Jeanette Valois to France as proxy so his sister and I could marry despite the circumstances. When my father broke the betrothal, I acted against his wishes and went through with the ceremony with Jeanette standing in for Juliet.” St. Cyr leered at her. “So you see, I am your true husband as I have the prior claim. Even though secret, the marriage is valid. You belong to me.” He reached for Juliet’s hand.
“Allow me to doubt a bit longer, St. Cyr.” Amiable coolly knocked the man’s hand aside. “Why did you not contact my wife before now with the news that the marriage had indeed taken place?” He glanced at Juliet. “It has been something over a year now?”
She nodded, and hung her head. She drew a handkerchief from her pocket and twisted it.
“I would have written,” St. Cyr said, “but because of the unfortunate relations between our two countries, mail became uncertain. I could not send a letter through diplomatic channels and risk it coming to the attention of my father.”
St. Cyr almost sounded plausible, yet something in his voice did not ring true. His smooth replies sounded much rehearsed. Had Amiable defied his father to marry a woman, he’d make damned sure the woman knew about it so she wouldn’t marry someone else. His hackles rose. He simply did not trust the man. “And now, by some miracle, twelve or so months later, you manage to appear in England with this unsubstantiated tale of a marriage.”
“I managed to get passage on an Irish ship leaving Paris, and from Dublin I made my way to London.”
“Your timing is exquisite, Philippe.” Juliet glared at the Frenchman. “My brother has just left for Italy and will not return for some months.”
“This need not concern the marquess.” St. Cyr waved, dismissing Amiable. “I can arrange for the annulment of your marriage to this gentleman, and then we can—”
“I am afraid that is out of the question, St. Cyr.” Damn but he wanted to take the young fop by the seat of his satin breeches and throw him out the front door. “Disabuse yourself of the idea I will have my marriage annulled, with or without her brother’s consent. She is my wife and there’s the end of it. You have upset her enough for one day. I will thank you to leave.”
“Juliet, mon chér amour.” St. Cyr reverted to his native French. “You cannot have a serious regard for this monstrous oaf?” He raked Amiable contemptuously with his gaze. “He is a barbarian compared to me, my dear. I can make you forget him, forget any of his crude gestures of love. Do you remember our embrace? At the king’s Christmas court ball? Such a quaint custom of the mistletoe. You seemed to long for more than just my tongue that night, my sweet.”
“Philippe, please.” Juliet shrank from him, blushing until her face matched the hue of her dress.
“I fear you did not heed my words earlier, St. Cyr,” Amiable replied in flawless French, pulling his sword free. “You have just besmirched the honor of my wife and I will have satisfaction of you.”
“Jack, no.” Juliet pulled Amiable to a corner of the room and whispered, “Please do not engage him, sir. We can hardly have a scene here without…” She nodded over her shoulder toward the Frenchman.
Totally unconcerned with the challenge he had just been issued, St. Cyr inspected the Watteau on the wall, once again idly twisting his walking stick in his hand. The fool.
“You have no true reason to challenge him.”
“There you are wrong, my dear. Any gentleman has the duty to defend a lady’s honor.” He smiled at her, then turned back to St. Cyr.
“May I suggest you apologize, my lord, unless you wish to meet me tomorrow morning?” He pointed his sword tip at St. Cyr’s mouth. “I will be much obliged to cut that offensive tongue out at your earliest convenience.” At last. Action he could take satisfaction in. He’d savor the anticipation of such a meeting.
St. Cyr paled a trifle as his gaze skipped from him to Juliet. “Forgive me, mon ange,” he addressed her, “for recalling our past intimacies. They should have remained in the memories of just we two.”
“Humph.” He stared hard at St. Cyr. Not the most contrite plea for forgiveness, but nothing more seemed forthcoming. Reluctantly, he executed a slight bow, acknowledged the dubious apology, and sheathed his blade.
“I have no such memories, Philippe.” Juliet spoke in French. “Nor do I want anything else from you except to be left alone.”
“C’est impossible, chérie. We are man and wife. I will not leave you alone in the care of another man. I insist you accompany me back to my inn.” St. Cyr dove for her hand.
With a strangled cry, Juliet spun around to hide behind Amiable.
“By God, that is enough.” He’d make an end to the wretch this time. “There are laws in England that prevent men from forcing women to marry them.”
“The law says Juliet is already married to me,” St. Cyr said softly and drew a sheaf of papers from his jacket. He waved them at Amiable. “And only to me.”