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October 2, 1806, Telcliffe Castle

“What is going on, Grandmother?” Nicolas politely interjected.

Sir Auden blinked in surprise.  “Have you not told him?”

The dowager drew herself up at the mild rebuke.  “There was no point in involving the boy until we had come to an agreement and all parties were present.”

“Tell me what precisely?”

She glanced impatiently at him, for it was uncommon for him or anyone else to interrupt her.  “Your marriage to Lady Grace Kearly.  It is an excellent match.  Your bride is the daughter of a duke and possesses an exceptional dowry.  Her pure lineage and wealth will be an asset to the family.  I hope you appreciate your good fortune.”

Good fortune?  Nicolas could not form a proper response to the outrageous statement.  He was too young to marry.  What about his education?  And his private thoughts of traveling the world?  Hell, he had yet to bed his first female!

Out of desperation, he looked to Christopher for silent support.  His friend was the Earl of Vanewright, and as far as Nicolas knew his family was not trying to marry him off before he grew his first beard.  Unfortunately, Christopher was blithely oblivious to his friend’s plight.  At some point, he had wandered over to the pretty nursemaid and her young charge.  The little girl was sitting contently on Christopher’s hip while he flirted with the servant.

What a fine friend he was, Nicolas thought.  He was in trouble and Christopher was chasing after a bit of skirt who was never going to let herself be caught.

“Nicolas, did you hear a single word I’ve uttered?”

He swallowed thickly and shook his head.  His skull felt like it was stuffed with straw; worse, he worried that he might disgrace himself and faint.

“I’m too young to marry.”

His soft admission earned a few sympathetic chuckles from Mr. Porter and Sir Auden.  The dowager, on the other hand, had pursed her lips together, a visible sign of her displeasure.

“Who said anything of you marrying this very day?” she snapped, and for Nicolas, it might as well have been a lash.  “These arrangements are often set in place years before the actual marriage takes place.  I thought you would be more grateful.”

“I am, Grandmother,” he mumbled, not feeling appreciative at all.  He was old enough to know that money and beauty did not always go hand in hand.  What if he had to marry a lady so long in the tooth that no man would have her?

“So I can see,” the dowager replied.

Too vexed to speak further on the subject, she beckoned for his friend to join them.  She was probably going to banish him and Christopher from her sight.  They would be lucky to get supper this evening.

Still holding the two-year-old girl, his friend crossed the room with the nursemaid following in his wake.  “How may I be of service, Your Grace?”
Braggart, Nicolas thought uncharitably.

“Such a pretty child,” his grandmother said, opening her arms.  “I believe she likes you, Vanewright.”

“I suppose,” Christopher replied cautiously as he finally sensed the tension pouring off his friend.  “My sisters like me well enough I suppose.  Particularly Ellen, but she’s the baby of the family.”

Realizing he was rambling, his friend shut his mouth.
“Give her to me.”

The request surprised Hunter.   He could not recall a time when the dowager demanded to hold anyone’s child.

“Of course, Your Grace,” Christopher said, eager to rid himself of the child and the dowager’s gaze on him.  He took a step forward and handed the girl to her.

His grandmother smiled at the child.  She cast a shrewd glance at her grandson.  “Your parents’ early deaths deprived you of siblings, Nicolas.  Come . . . why do you not hold her a moment.”

Considering the amount of trouble he was in, Nicolas immediately held out his hands and accepted the light burden even though he had no interest in the child.  His thoughts were on bigger problems.  Unused to handling young children, he felt awkward and the two-year-old seemed to sense his discomfort.  She immediately reached out for Christopher and made soft anxious sounds.

Rebuffed by a sniveling girl.  Nicolas doubted his afternoon could get worse.

“She’s as twitchy as a monkey,” Nicolas said with false cheer, struggling not to drop her as she tried to free herself from his grasp.  “Does she have a name?”

“Of course,” his grandmother said drily.  “Lady Grace Kearly.”

The girl slipped through his boneless grasp, her backside hitting the floor first.  Everyone in the room gasped.  Lady Grace promptly let out an earsplitting scream.

“It was an accident!” he hastily explained to the scowling adults.

Horrified that he might have hurt the child, Nicolas fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around her with the intention of collecting her off the floor.  This—girl—was his bride?  Was this some kind of jest?

Frustrated and in no mood to be handled, the girl leaned forward and sank her teeth into his wrist.  Nicolas yelped in pain.  Those tiny sharp teeth sliced into his flesh and drew blood.

Evidently, Lady Grace didn’t think much of their arranged marriage, either.

Copyright © February 2013.  Excerpt from DUSK WITH A DANGEROUS DUKE by Alexandra Hawkins. Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher or Author.

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