Julia Wychwood was alone in Rotten Row, and that was exactly the way she liked it.
Well, not quite alone.
There was her groom, Luke Six. And there were some humbly clad men and women tarrying along the viewing rail. But otherwise . . .
It was often the case at this time of morning—those early moments after break of dawn, when the air was misty cool and the rising sun was shining brightly to burn away the fog. Some ladies and gentlemen chose to ride at this time of day, but not many. Certainly not as many as during the fashionable hour. Then, all of society was out in force.
Which was precisely why Julia preferred riding in the morning. There were fewer stares and whispers. Less judgment.
With a squeeze of her leg, she urged Cossack into a canter. It was the big ebony gelding’s best gait—a steady, even stride, with a sway to it like a rocking chair. She relaxed into it. When cantering, Cossack required nothing more of her than that she maintain a light contact on the double reins. He did the rest, which left her ample time to daydream.
Or to fret.
She wasn’t only alone in Rotten Row. She was alone in London. Her three best friends were all out of town, with two of them not set to return until Sunday. That left four days for her to get through on her own. Four excruciating days, and on every one of them, an equally excruciating society event.
Julia considered taking to her bed. She’d done it before to get out of attending a ball or a dinner. But she’d never done it for more than two days at a time. Even then, her parents insisted on summoning Dr. Cordingley—an odious man who always came with his lancet and bleeding bowl in hand.
She shuddered to think of it.
No. Faking an illness wouldn’t work this time. Maybe for one day, but not for all of them.
Somehow, she was going to have to get through it.
Cossack tossed his head at something in the distance.
Julia’s gloved hands tightened reflexively on the reins. She squinted down the length of the Row at the rider coming toward them. “Easy,” she murmured to Cossack. “It’s just another horse.”
An enormous horse. Bigger and blacker than Cossack himself.
But it wasn’t the horse that made Julia tense in her sidesaddle. It was the gentleman astride him: a stern-faced, battle-scarred ex-military man.
Captain Blunt, the Hero of the Crimea.
Her mouth went dry as he approached. She was half-tempted to bolt. But there was no escaping him. She brought Cossack down to a trot and then to a walk.
She’d met the captain once before. It had been at Lady Arundell’s spring ball. Viscount Ridgeway, a mutual acquaintance of theirs, had introduced him to Julia as a worthy partner. In other circumstances, the interaction might have been the veriest commonplace—a few polite words exchanged and a turn about the polished wood dance floor.
Instead, Julia had gawped at Captain Blunt like a stricken nitwit. Her breath had stopped and her pulse had roared in her ears. Afraid she might faint, she’d fled the ballroom before the introduction had been completed, leaving Captain Blunt standing there, his granite-hewn features frozen in a mask of displeasure.
It had been one of the most mortifying experiences of Julia’s life.
And that was saying something.
For a lady prone to panicking in company, mortifications were a daily occurrence. At the advanced age of two-and-twenty, she’d nearly grown accustomed to them. But even for her, the incident at Lady Arundell’s ball had marked a new low.
No doubt Captain Blunt thought her actions had had something to do with his appearance.
He was powerfully made. Tall, strong, and impossibly broad shouldered. Already a physically intimidating gentleman, he was made even more so by the scar on his face. The deep, gruesome slash bisected his right eyebrow and ran all the way down to his mouth, notching into the flesh of his lip. It gave the impression of a permanent sneer.
Rather ironic that he was hailed as a hero. In looks, there seemed nothing heroic about him. Indeed, he appeared in every way a villain.
“Miss Wychwood.” He removed his beaver hat, inclining his head in a bow. His hair was a lustrous raven black. Cut short to his collar, it was complemented by a pair of similarly short sideburns edging the harsh lines of his jaw. “Good morning.”
She scarcely dared look him in the face. “Good morning.”
He didn’t reply. Not immediately. He was studying her. She could feel the weight of his stare. It set off a storm of butterflies in her stomach.
Ride on, she wanted to say. Please, ride on.
He didn’t ride on. He seemed intent on making her squirm.
She suspected she knew why. She’d never apologized to him for her behavior at the ball. There’d been no opportunity.
Perhaps he wanted her to suffer for embarrassing him?
If that was the case, Julia was resigned to take her medicine. Heaven knew she deserved it.
She forced herself to meet his gaze. The butterflies in her stomach threatened to revolt. Goodness. His eyes were the color of hoarfrost—a gray so cold and stark it sent an icy shiver tracing down the curve of her spine. Every feminine instinct within her rose up in warning. Run, it said. Flee.
But this wasn’t Lady Arundell’s ballroom.
This was Hyde Park. Here in the open air, mounted on Cossack, she wasn’t the same person she was at a ball or a dinner dance. For one thing, she wasn’t alone. She had a partner—and an imposing one, at that. Cossack lent her his strength and his stature. Made her feel nearly as formidable as he was. It’s why she was more confident on horseback.
At least, she’d always been so before.
“How do you do?” she asked.
“Very well.” His voice was deep and commanding, with a growl at the edge of it. A soldier’s voice. The kind that, when necessary, could be heard across a battlefield. “And yourself?”
“I’m enjoying our spell of fine weather,” she said. “It’s excellent for riding.”
He flicked a glance over her habit. Made of faded black wool, it did nothing to emphasize the contours of her figure. Rather the opposite. It obscured her shape, much as the net veil on her short-brimmed riding hat obscured her face. His black brows notched into a frown.
She suppressed a flicker of self-consciousness. Her clothing wasn’t meant to attract attention. It was meant to render her invisible. But it hadn’t—not to him.
The way he looked at her . . . Hades might have regarded Persephone thus before dragging her down to hell to be his unwilling bride.
And everyone knew Captain Blunt was looking for a wife.
If one believed the prevailing rumors, it was the sole reason he’d come to town. He was on the hunt for a vulnerable heiress he could spirit back to his isolated Yorkshire estate. An estate that was said to be haunted.
“You ride often at this time of day?” he asked.
“Whenever I can,” she said. “Cossack is glad for the exercise.”
“You handle him well.”
Some of the tightness in her chest eased at the compliment. “It’s not difficult.” She stroked Cossack’s neck. “He may look imposing, but he’s a lamb underneath. The biggest creatures often are in my experience.”
Captain Blunt’s own mount stamped his gigantic hooves as if in objection to her statement.
She gave the great beast an interested look. He was built like a medieval warhorse, with a broad chest, heavy fetlocks, and a thickly waving mane and tail. “What do you call him?”
“And is he—”
“A brute through and through,” Captain Blunt said. “Sometimes, Miss Wychwood, what you see is precisely what you get.”
Julia wondered if that was true in the captain’s own case. Could he really be as menacing as he appeared? She didn’t know to a certainty. All she knew was that, according to society gossip, he was positively dangerous—especially to marriageable young ladies.
It didn’t excuse how she’d behaved toward him at the ball.
She moistened her lips. “I believe I owe you an apology.”
He looked steadily back at her.
“When Lord Ridgeway was introducing you to me at Lady Arundell’s ball . . .” She faltered. “Perhaps you don’t remember—”
“I remember,” he said gruffly.
Heat rose in her cheeks. “Yes, well . . . I’m sorry to have run off like that. I’m afraid I’m not at my best when meeting strangers.”
“Do you often run off during introductions?”
“Not generally, no. Not unless I fear I’m going to swoon.” Her mouth ticked up at one corner in a rueful smile. “You wouldn’t have appreciated having to catch me.”
Something flickered behind his icy gaze. An emotion impossible to read. “You don’t know me very well, ma’am.”
Were it any other gentleman, Julia might have suspected him of flirting with her. But not Captain Blunt. His scarred countenance was as coldly serious as his tone.
Her smile faded. “No, indeed.” She tightened her fingers on the reins. “But I apologize all the same.” She dipped her head to him as she urged Cossack on in the opposite direction. “Good day, Captain Blunt.”
He didn’t return her farewell. He didn’t say anything. He only sat there atop his horse, watching her ride away.
Julia felt the burning impression of his stare at her back. And this time, she didn’t will herself to be brave. She did what she’d wanted to do since she’d first laid eyes on him.
She pressed her heel into Cossack’s side and she fled.
Jasper was tempted to ride after her, no matter that she’d just dismissed him.
He held Quintus to a standstill as Miss Wychwood rode away. She kept to a walk for several strides before kicking her horse into a lofty, ground-covering canter. Her seat was impeccable, her gloved hands light on her reins. She had a reputation for being a good rider. And she must be one to handle a horse so obviously too big for her.
Good God. She couldn’t be more than five feet and three inches in height. A petite lady, with a gentle way about her. Had she no one to choose her a more suitable mount?
Jasper suspected not.
Her parents were well-known invalids, prone to all manner of fancies. Their elegant town house in Belgrave Square played host to an endless stream of doctors, chemists, and an ever-changing roster of servants.
Even Miss Wychwood’s groom was of a recent vintage—a different fellow from the one who had accompanied her three days ago. He cantered a length behind her, the pair of them disappearing into the distance.
Jasper’s frown deepened.
He’d learned many things about Miss Wychwood in the past several weeks, enough to know that marrying her and whisking her away to Yorkshire was going to be anything but simple.
Damn Viscount Ridgeway for suggesting it.
Exiting the park, Jasper returned to Ridgeway’s house in Half Moon Street. It was a fashionable address, if not an ostentatious one, tucked between the house of a rich old widow on one side and that of a well-to-do solicitor on the other. After settling Quintus in the stable with his groom, Jasper made his way up the front steps to the door.
Ridgeway’s grizzled butler, Skipforth, admitted him into the black-and-white-tiled hall. “His lordship has requested your presence in his chamber,” he said as he took Jasper’s hat and gloves. “He’s breakfasting there.”
Of course he was.
Ridgeway rarely emerged from his room before ten, and then only on sufferance.
Jasper felt a flare of irritation. Not for the first time, he regretted accepting Ridgeway’s invitation to stay.
“Shall I take you to him, sir?” Skipforth asked.
“No need.” Jasper bounded up the curving staircase to the third floor. He rapped once on Ridgeway’s door before entering.
The heavy draperies were drawn back from the windows. Sunlight streamed through the glass, revealing an expansive bedchamber decorated in shades of rich crimson and gold. On the far side of it, opposite his unmade four-poster bed and the silver tea tray containing the remains of his breakfast, sat Nathan Grainger, Viscount Ridgeway.
He was sprawled in a wooden chair in front of his inlaid mahogany dressing table, eyes closed as his valet trimmed his side-whiskers.
“That you, Blunt?” He squinted open one eye. “Back so soon?”
“As you see. Skipforth said you had need of me?”
“So I do. And excellent timing, too. Fennel’s just finished shearing me.” Ridgeway dismissed his valet with a wave of his hand.
Fennel, a weedy man with a shifty expression, promptly withdrew into the dressing room, shutting the door behind him with a click.
“I require your opinion on a horse I’ve been eyeing at Tattersalls,” Ridgeway said. “Unless you have other plans today?”
“Nothing that can’t be changed. When are you leaving?”
“Presently.” Ridgeway sat forward in his chair, examining his freshly trimmed side-whiskers in the glass. “What do you think?”
Jasper could detect no difference from the way Ridgeway usually looked. “I suppose they’re shorter.”
“I despaired of them growing too full. A man wants to appear dignified, but after all, one doesn’t wish to look like the prime minister.”
“No chance of that.” Jasper crossed the floor to take a seat in a velvet-upholstered wing chair near the fire.
Ridgeway kept only enough servants to support a bachelor establishment. His house was, nevertheless, comfortable and well tended—a definite improvement from the hotel Jasper had been staying at when he’d first arrived in town.
Not that he’d had much choice in lodgings.
He had no family in London to impose upon. No real friends on whom he could inflict his company.
Even his connection with Ridgeway was tenuous at best.
They’d met six years ago in Constantinople—both men at their lowest ebb. Ridgeway had come to Scutari Hospital to collect the body of his younger brother, killed in the skirmish that had taken the lives of the rest of Jasper’s men.
Jasper had been at Scutari, too; not on an errand, but as a gravely injured patient—the sole survivor of the skirmish, rendered all but unrecognizable by the severe wounds on his face.
Ridgeway had spoken to him, attempting to rally his spirits. A futile task. Jasper had been in no mood to speak to anyone. But later, upon his release from hospital, when Ridgeway had written to him, Jasper had grudgingly replied.
An occasional correspondence had followed.
It wasn’t a friendship. Not anywhere near it. Jasper hadn’t any friends. And unless he was mistaken, neither had Ridgeway. They were merely two men brought together by circumstance. Cordial acquaintances—and sometimes, not even that.
Indeed, since coming to stay with him, Jasper had found Ridgeway’s cold-bloodedness increasingly repellent.
“Why so glum?” Ridgeway cast him a glance. “No luck with Miss Wychwood?”
“Luck has nothing to do with it.”
“You did see her?”
“I did,” Jasper said. Despite the fact that she clearly didn’t want to be seen.
Given the drab, ill-fitting clothing that shrouded her figure and the riding veils that concealed her face, one might think she had reason to hide. That her face and body were something to be ashamed of.
It wasn’t true.
Julia Wychwood was beautiful.
He’d realized that from the first moment he’d set eyes on her.
In another time—another life—he might have been in grave danger of losing his heart.
Ridgeway continued admiring his reflection. “What’s the problem, then?”
“The problem,” Jasper said, “is that this business is becoming quite a bit more mercenary than I’d intended.”
“Courtship is mercenary. And marriage is positively cutthroat. If you don’t have the stones for it you may as well resign yourself to a permanent state of bachelorhood.” Ridgeway smoothed his hand over his side-whiskers. “Which isn’t so bad, now I think on it. So long as you can afford it.”
“Which I can’t,” Jasper reminded him.
Ridgeway shrugged. “There you are.”
“Yes,” Jasper said. “Here I am. And there you are, being absolutely useless, per usual.”
“I say. That’s unfair. Didn’t I introduce you to her?” Ridgeway met Jasper’s eyes in the glass. “She’s an heiress. A sickly heiress, too. Take my advice and marry the chit. She won’t overburden you for long.”
Jasper’s jaw tightened on a surge of anger. Mercenary he may be, but he hadn’t yet sunk to marrying an invalid and praying for her early demise. “You’re very sure of yourself.”
Ridgeway shrugged. “She took to her bed last month for several days. I hear that the doctor was called in to bleed her. She’s already a pasty thing. How much more blood do you suppose she has left to offer?”
“She’s stronger than she looks.”
“You can’t know that. You’ve only seen her a handful of times.”
“I’ve seen enough. I’ve seen her ride. She’s not yet at death’s door.” Jasper paused, adding, “And she’s not pasty.”
“No? What would you call her complexion? It’s not marble or alabaster. Not like her friend, Lady Anne.” Ridgeway again looked at Jasper in the glass. “By the by, if you take my advice, you’ll make the most of that lady’s absence from town. You might have noticed, whenever she’s here, she guards her little protégé like a hydrophobic mastiff.”
“Lady Anne has left London?” That was news. “For how long?”
Another shrug. “A few days. She and her mother have hared off to Birmingham to look in on that child medium everyone’s talking about. The one who claims to have contacted Prince Albert.”
Jasper’s lips compressed. He’d heard of the boy. When one was out in fashionable society, it was impossible not to. Jasper put no stock in such tales. No more than he put in spiritualism as a whole. It was all so much nonsense. Ghosts and spirits and proclamations from beyond the veil.
As if he hadn’t enough of that to deal with in Yorkshire.
“I wonder that Miss Wychwood didn’t accompany them,” he said.
“The Wychwoods don’t involve themselves in such things. They’ve enough trouble on this side of the grave, what with their rapidly failing health.” Ridgeway stood abruptly. “Speaking of which, Fennel tells me that Miss Wychwood will be attending Lady Clifford’s musicale this evening. Good thing you didn’t refuse the invitation.”
Jasper sighed. A musicale meant a crowded room filled with the cream of London society. It meant him sitting shoulder to shoulder with eligible young misses and their overbearing mamas.
“Having second thoughts?” Ridgeway asked.
Yes. And third ones, too.
But Jasper wasn’t going to confide all of his doubts in Ridgeway. The man already knew too much. “There must be someone else who will suit.”
“What?” Ridgeway gave him a narrow glance. “Another heiress, do you mean?”
“Yes,” Jasper said. “Exactly that. Someone who . . .”
Someone who didn’t nearly faint at the sight of him. Who wasn’t afraid to look him in the face.
From anyone else, he could have tolerated well-bred disgust. It was a frequent enough reaction to his appearance. But he couldn’t accept it from her.
“Blast it,” he muttered under his breath. “This shouldn’t be so complicated.”
“It isn’t.” Ridgeway reached for his coat and tugged it on. “You require an heiress with no family or connections—no one to ask questions about you or to come snooping to Yorkshire. The only heiress who fits the bill is Julia Wychwood. If not her, then you may as well let the bailiffs take your estate.”
Jasper ran a hand through his hair in frustration. The bailiffs. Bloody hell. It wasn’t going to come to that, was it? Not after everything he’d already risked to forge a new life for himself.
Ridgeway laughed. “The look on your face. One would think you were too high-minded to follow through with it.”
An image of Miss Wychwood materialized in Jasper’s mind, her sapphire blue eyes shining vividly from behind her black net riding veil.
I believe I owe you an apology.
She’d taken him completely off of his guard. Had puzzled and disarmed him.
Was she really who she appeared to be? A sickly wallflower heiress, ripe for the plucking?
He was beginning to have his doubts. “I might be.”
“Bah,” Ridgeway scoffed. “That’s not the man my brother wrote to me about during the war. The cruel, ruthless, bloodthirsty Captain Blunt who had all of his men shivering in their boots. Surely, you remember him?”
“Only too well,” Jasper said grimly.
“Do you? Because it sometimes seems to me that you’re not that man at all.”
Jasper’s gaze jerked to Ridgeway’s face. There seemed to be no ulterior meaning in his words. No hint of a threat. “I may well have been ruthless,” he replied, “but never with women. And never outside times of war.”
“My dear fellow, this is a war,” Ridgeway said. “It’s the London season.”
Excerpted from The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews. Copyright © 2022 by Mimi Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Publishing Group. All right reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.Return to The Belle of Belgrave Square