Born to Be Wilde
The book is dedicated to my brother-in-law Sunil,
whose courage in the face of cancer is truly heroic.
A Note about Addiction, Seamstresses, and Anglo-Indian Children
Announcement page to Reluctantly a Lady
About the Author
By Eloisa James
About the Publisher
Lindow Castle, Cheshire
Country seat of the Duke of Lindow
June 4, 1780
Miss Lavinia Gray considered herself reasonably brave. In her twenty-one years, she had been presented to both an English and a French queen without losing her composure. She had squeaked, but not screamed, after a close encounter with an exceedingly large bear. Perhaps “bear” was an exaggeration. One could call it a dog, but only if a dog had huge bearlike fangs and lunged from the shadows.
Screaming would not have been uncalled for.
There was also the time she had waded into a lake rumored to be inhabited by leeches. She had shuddered but soldiered on every time something soft bumped her legs.
Hovering in the corridor outside a gentleman’s bedchamber?
This was a whole new level of uneasiness. She’d prefer to swim in a leechy lake up to her neck than knock on the door before her.
The ironic thing was that she’d soothed many a young gentleman who had fallen to his knees to offer marriage, although now she realized she should have been even kinder. Drumming up one’s nerve to propose was terrifying.
That’s what she was about to do.
A silent shriek went through her head. How in heaven’s name have I come to this?
She shook off the unhelpful thought and tried to muster her courage. Generally speaking, she found dresses to be a formidable suit of armor, useful in marshaling courage, but even one of her best Parisian gowns wasn’t helping. Champagne-tinted silk clung to her figure and then opened into frothy ruffles at the hem; modest padding at the hips emphasized the swell of her breasts and made her waist look smaller.
Ordinarily, she would have felt invulnerable in it, but at the moment, she felt only self-conscious dread.
The problem was that Parth Sterling had never shown any sign of being attracted to her figure—or any other part of her, for that matter. Just last night he had entered the drawing room, nodded to her, and promptly moved to the other side of the room.
After not seeing her for two years.
Bring on the leechy lake.
“You have no choice,” her cousin Diana had fiercely insisted, not ten minutes ago. “You must marry Parth. He’s the only one who can save your mother.”
Lavinia took a deep breath, forcing herself to stand still and not dash down the corridor. Hands fisted at her sides, she firmed her lips and took a step closer to the door. Her mother, Lady Gray, needed to be saved, and an ordinary, garden-variety gentleman wasn’t going to do it.
She needed Parth, not only because he was the richest bachelor in the kingdom, but because he—well, he got things done.
He fixed things.
Problems of all sorts.
The thought stiffened her backbone, and before she could stop herself again, she knocked. And waited.
A swooning sense of relief came over her when no one opened the door.
She would return to Diana and report that Parth Sterling unaccountably hadn’t been in his chamber waiting for a marriage proposal.
He was standing in the open doorway, staring at her there in the dark corridor.
She managed a wavering smile. “Hello!”
“Jesus,” he barked, and then looked both ways. “What in the hell are you doing out here?”
Before she could answer, he grabbed her by the elbow, pulled her inside, and slammed the door.
Earlier, talking to Diana, it had all made sense, in a cracked sort of way: Parth was rich, Parth was unmarried, and Parth was a problem solver.
But faced with Parth? Who was taller than most men, broader in his chest, with thick hair, skin like warm bronze, dark eyes . . . and that beard! Unlike the other gentlemen of her acquaintance, he wore a close-trimmed beard that made him look as if he belonged in a Shakespeare play, or the court of Henry VIII.
He looked like a king.
“I find myself in a predicament,” Lavinia said, the words tripping over each other. “Well, more than a predicament, a problem. Yes, ‘problem’ is the right word for it.” Usually she had no trouble speaking, but now it felt as if sentences were knocking about in her head.
“It must be an appalling sort of problem, to bring you to my door.” His voice wasn’t chilly, precisely, but she caught a distinct ironic edge.
Oh, God, her sins were coming home to roost.
“I used to call you ‘Appalling Parth,’” she said, clearing her throat. “It was merely in jest, and I apologize.”
“To be sure, a jest,” he agreed, his voice indifferent. “Whatever the case, why are you here, Miss Gray?”
“You used to call me Lavinia. In fact, you did seconds ago.”
“Seconds ago I was shocked to find a lady standing at my bedchamber door. It seems we were both guilty of a lapse in decorum.”
Well, that was blunt. Lavinia twisted her fingers together, trying to work out how to broach the subject of marriage. This was a disaster. She ought to leave. She told herself to leave, quite firmly. Her feet remained rooted to the carpet.
Parth raised a brow. “Well?” he said, when she had apparently stood in silence too long. “What can I do for you, Miss Gray?”
Before she thought twice, her eyes flew to his. Yes, she had teased him. But she didn’t believe he hated her.
“Lavinia,” he corrected, his eyes softening. “That was graceless of me, because you are clearly in extremis. What can I do to help?”
The humiliating thing was that the mere sight of him made her heart pound. Never mind that he was monstrously arrogant and would make a terrible husband. From the moment she’d first seen him, two summers before, he’d done something to her. He aggravated her. He infuriated her. He intrigued her. She hated that the most because he had made it clear from the first time he saw her that he considered her trivial, silly, and intellectually inferior.
Why in God’s name had she allowed Diana to talk her into this?
She cleared her throat. “I was wonderin
“Because,” Lavinia said, propelled forward by the terrible narrative that she and Diana had devised. “I am . . . I am . . .”
She couldn’t do it.
She tried again. “It’s just that I thought—”
“Are you offering to marry me?” His voice rasped. “Bloody hell, Lavinia—are you proposing marriage?”
“Something like that,” she admitted.
She had imagined surprise, or blunt rejection. She had not imagined . . . pity.
But she saw pity in his dark eyes, and a wave of humiliation made her stomach cramp. Instinctively she swung her gaze away and caught sight of the two of them in a looking glass hanging on the wall.
Lavinia looked the same as she had two hours ago, before her mother revealed the truth about their finances. Her thick hair was the color of new guineas; her blue eyes were framed by lavish eyelashes that she darkened religiously. A buxom figure and lips that she didn’t bother to color because her looks already skirted the edge of respectability.
That showed just how deceiving an appearance could be.
She was no longer the Lavinia of two hours ago. For one thing, she was no longer respectable. A hysterical giggle rose in her chest at the thought. Miss Lavinia Gray, daughter of Lady Gray, an heiress who had been wooed on both sides of the Channel, was no longer—
Or an heiress.
Still desirable, perhaps, but poor. Worse than poor.
Her eyes moved to Parth again, and it struck her that he wasn’t wearing a coat, just a white linen shirt, and he’d rolled up his sleeves, revealing powerful arms. No wig, no coat. She looked down. No boots.
“We aren’t from the same world,” he said, catching her thought but not understanding it. “You don’t want to marry me, Lavinia. I can’t imagine why you got that in your head.”
Out of nowhere, a streak of blind stubbornness appeared. “Would you . . . may I know your reasons for refusing me?”
He looked at her, incredulous. “Lavinia, are you feeling well?”
“Not particularly,” she said in a burst of honesty. “Perhaps because I’ve never done anything like this before.” She was confident around the men who’d courted her; their attentions confirmed her desirability. But something about Parth made her feel uncertain and defensive. At the same time, everything in her prickled into life.
“I gather you are saying no,” she added.
“I am indeed saying no,” Parth replied. His tone wasn’t unkind, but it was unambiguous. He moved to stand behind a chair, as if to put an obstacle between them, as if she were a feral dog who might lunge at him.
This wasn’t the way this was supposed to go.
Diana had been confident that Parth would agree, and she had talked at length about how he would fall in love with Lavinia after they had wed. With a sickening jolt, Lavinia realized that she had gone along with the plan because it involved Parth.
Who was precisely the sort of man who would never accept a bride he hadn’t chosen himself. Let alone one he disliked. Parth, of all men, wouldn’t want to be married for his money. He didn’t wear flashy jewels as buttons, or ride in a carriage trimmed in gilt.
She was such a fool.
“Lavinia, is there anything I can—”
“No, nothing at all,” she said brightly, turning toward the door. “I can’t imagine why I ever had such an idiotic notion.”
He stepped in front of her. “Why did you?”
She couldn’t tell him about the money and the emeralds, and how Lady Gray would end up in Newgate Prison if Lavinia couldn’t solve the mess her mother had gotten them into.
“I have had a lingering infatuation,” she said, the words pouring out before she caught them. “You don’t believe I give every man pet names, do you?”
She saw the muscles tense through the sheer linen of his shirt. It was . . .
“I’m joking!” she cried. “It’s time I return to my own chamber. You certainly don’t want me to be caught here. I can assure you, Parth, that I may ask a gentleman to marry me, but I would never compromise one.”
His hand whipped out and caught her arm. “I’m not the first you’ve proposed to?” It was a growl.
“As a matter of fact, you are.” Then she added, with reckless bravado, “But now I’ve broken the ice, so to speak, who knows where I’ll stop?”
Parth shook his head. “When you left England, you were the most desirable lady on the marriage market. You have no need to woo a man, Lavinia.”
“Times change,” she said lightly.
His gaze moved from her toes to her head. “No, they don’t. You look—” Then his eyes sharpened. “Wait. I see.”
“You do?” She pulled her arm free and began to back toward the door. Why had she listened to Diana? Everyone knew that her cousin was prone to wild ideas. Just look at the way Diana had run away from her own betrothal party with no more than a hatbox, and after that, had become a governess in the home of her jilted fiancé.
He took a step toward her, eyes intent. “It’s not a disgrace, Lavinia.”
Her heart sank. He must know. He owned a bank, for goodness’ sake. Resentment prickled down her spine. If he’d realized that her dowry was lost, couldn’t he have said something?
“You know?” There was gravel in her voice.
“I can guess.”
“Oh.” The word was small and ashamed.
“I’ll find him,” Parth said, low and ferocious. “And I’ll kill him.”
“The father of your child.” Parth’s large hands closed around her shoulders. “Tell me his name.” His eyes fell to her bosom, assessed the size of her breasts, descended to her hips. “Three or four months on the way, I would guess?”
Lavinia’s mouth fell open, and then she snapped it shut. She’d been humiliated before, but now . . .
“You believe I’d deceive you so?” The words came out broken and aching. “I know you don’t like me, Parth, but you think me capable of that? That I’d—that I’d ask you to marry me in order to disguise the fact I was carrying another man’s child?”
His eyes went blank and his hands fell away.
“You feel that I’m—that I had—that I would—” Her throat ached so much she couldn’t speak. She had known he disliked her. But she hadn’t imagined he thought she was loose. Or worse, conniving.
That was the moment when, looking back, Lavinia decided that she could consider herself brave. Because she didn’t cry or scream. She summoned the last dregs of her courage and drew herself upright.
She might have even given him a polite smile. “I apologize, Parth. Excuse me, I meant to say Mr. Sterling. I intruded into your chamber and embarrassed both of us, for no good reason.”
She skirted him and fled, somehow finding the discipline to close the door quietly behind herself.
Lindow Castle stables
An hour later
“Elisa is a contessa,” Parth called over to North—that is, Lord Roland Northbridge Wilde, heir to the Lindow dukedom, and his closest friend since childhood. Parth was seated on Blue, a sixteen-hands chestnut gelding whose cantankerous attitude had been giving North problems.
North leaned against the post-and-rail fence surrounding one of the exercise rings dotting the stables, and gave a bark of laughter. “You’ve told me a hundred times that you have no plans to marry, and in particular, that you will never marry a lady. You told me after my disastrous betrothal party that you’d never give a woman the chance to jilt you. And yet here you are, intending to marry a noblewoman?”
Parth turned his mount in yet another tight circle. “Elisa is different. For one thing, she’s Italian.”
Keeping a firm seat, and with the reins steady, Parth deftly moved the big horse through his paces, around and around the enclosure.
It was this activ
“How did you meet her?” North asked.
Blue’s ears were twitching, suggesting rebellion, but Parth hadn’t lost his seat since he was a boy, and he wasn’t going to now.
“Her late husband and I were good friends in Florence. He was a conte, but he wasn’t as useless as most noblemen. He died more than a year ago now.”
Blue tried to toss his head, and moved his rear sideways, a sign of the temper that had him throwing a dozen riders since North had purchased him.
“I wasn’t aware you were looking for a wife,” North exclaimed. “You always refuse to attend balls with me.”
“I’m neither titled, nor pretty, as you are. Or as you used to be.” Parth tossed it over his shoulder, because Blue was rebelling in earnest now, prancing to show off his displeasure, lunging around the ring as if he could intimidate his rider into giving over control.
“Going to war changes a man,” North said, shrugging.
Before Diana, his bride-to-be, had fled their betrothal party two years ago, North had been one of the most fashionable gentlemen in all England, rarely seen without a pristine wig and an embroidered coat. His clothing had been superlative, the heels of his shoes red, his stockings silk.
Now he was wearing a plain white shirt, frayed at the wrists where lace cuffs had presumably been ripped away. No wig was in evidence, and his skin was browned by the sun. He’d spent the morning working with his horses, and had a smudge of dirt on the cheekbone that used to be dotted with a beauty patch.
The sight of him now gave Parth a feeling of deep satisfaction. North hadn’t been foppish when they were growing up together; rather, it was Horatius, North’s late older brother, who had reveled in ducal attire. Who had been faultless in appearance and manner most of the time—unless he was drunk, as he had been the night he died.
“I take it, then, that the contessa is not interested in your fortune,” North said. “That’s important.”
Parth nodded. The success of Sterling Bank had propelled him into the view of polite society. Young ladies of high birth had proved to be feverishly eager to marry a man whose private fortune ranked among the top in the country.