2012 Age of Edward Contest

Title: The Lady's Honor

Author: Melolabel

Type of Edward: Regency Edward circa 1815

Rating: T/YA

Disclaimer:All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

Enormous thanks to LJ Summers for lending her eyes, mad skillz, and colorful pens to this story. And thanks to all who love an Edward in breeches. ;)

Perhaps it was the heat radiating from the hundreds of glowing candles scattered throughout the ballroom that made him so uncomfortable, The Earl of Rushford thought. More than likely, though, it was the ardent, almost desperate air about the young woman with whom he had just finished dancing.

"That was ever so splendid, my lord," tittered Miss Jessica Stanley as she bounced on her toes. It seemed her every movement was designed to draw his attention to her décolletage. "You dance exquisitely." She leaned forward a bit and smiled in what she must have thought was an alluring manner, but to the Earl was merely off-putting.

"It was my pleasure," replied Lord Rushford with a growing tightness of annoyance tugging at the corners of his eyes. He nodded once to Sir Gerald Stanley, a Baronet on the fringes of the ton as well as the young lady's father, and prepared to take his leave.

At the very last moment, the simpering voice of Lady Stanley drew the Earl back into tedious conversation. "My lord, we are organizing an outing to Vauxhall gardens in a week's time. And one of the gentlemen of our party has unfortunately had to leave London on urgent family business, rendering our numbers uneven." She batted her fan and giggled as atrociously as her daughter. "Would you do us the honor of joining our group?"

It didn't take more than a moment for that familiar feeling of panic to creep up his spine, screaming at his mind and muscles to flee. It was a phenomenon he'd experienced with each one of the debutantes belonging to a family of social climbers. It seemed his sordid reputation of womanizing, drinking to excess, and gambling weren't any kind of deterrent when it came to making a match for the daughter of a lesser peer.

He forced a smile. "I will have to check my availability, but I shall send word on the morrow. Good evening, ladies." He bowed to Miss Stanley and her mother. "Sir?" Lord Rushford turned and again nodded to Sir Stanley and made purposeful strides away from the insufferable trio.

The musicians were preparing for the next set and he sighed in relief when he realized he was not engaged to dance with any particular young lady. The whole evening thus far had been a parade of empty-headed confections of frippery and lace; all, that was, except for perhaps Miss Swan.

He knew of her rather inauspicious coming out the season prior, but had only met her this evening. He couldn't understand why she hadn't already been snapped up by some other gentleman. Her beauty alone was dazzling, but her vivacious yet demure personality was even more so. And she shared his passion for stargazing, which was a refreshing departure from the normal hobbies of watercolor painting and embroidery in which many young ladies claimed proficiency.

He found his mother gathered with a small group of ladies and smiled at each one before addressing the Countess. "Mother, I am going to take a stroll in the garden."

"Oh, my dear, I had hoped to present you to Miss Webber," she said, her voice plaintive and guilt-inducing.

While he was resigned to dancing with all the ladies to whom his mother presented him, he needed a brief respite.

"I shall only be gone for one set," he said with an indulgent smile.

"Yes, and then you will disappear into the card room and it will be impossible to find you a suitable wife. Really, Rushford, you are two-and-thirty. It is time you settled down and set up your nursery."

His eyes narrowed and he had to bite back the harsh words he would have liked to utter; the Countess did not deserve his ire—despite the fact that she had been harping on him about this very thing for years now. She wanted to see him well settled in life, and he couldn't begrudge her that.

"Yes, Mother, you have made yourself quite clear on the matter. If you will excuse me?"

He nodded to a few acquaintances as he walked through the ball room, but it wasn't until he stepped out onto the terrace that he finally felt like he could breathe. He walked down the wide stone steps and into the garden enjoying the marked coolness of the evening as well as the feeling of solitude the garden afforded.

Only the crunch of his gleaming Hessian boots could be heard on the graveled pathway carved in between hedgerows and flowers. He was so very weary of the marriage mart, he thought as a heavy sigh escaped his lips.

After several minutes of wandering, he had moved out of the shimmering net cast by the paper lanterns which dangled in the trees, and stopped for a moment so his eyes could adjust to the darkness. He clasped his hands behind his back and tilted his head to the night sky. He tried to identify some of the constellations, but the growing layer of gray clouds made it impossible.

It was in these blessed moments of seclusion when he could escape the pressures of his title, the badgering of his mother for an heir, and just be Edward. Not "Rushford," or "my lord," but simply himself. He wasn't sure how long he'd been absent from the ballroom, but he was fairly certain it had been long enough that if he did not return soon, his mother would send out a search party to drag him back inside so he could make himself agreeable to yet another prospective bride.

The rebellious nature which had so long been a part of his youth reared up. He'd be damned if he took on one of these insipid fortune hunters as a leg-shackle. When he married, it would be to a woman of his own choosing and in his own due time. In one last bid of defiance, he decided to prolong this rare bit of freedom by taking a more circuitous route back to the ball.

As he strolled along the neatly groomed path he came upon a section where the stones had been disturbed and the flowers trampled. He frowned and made a note to speak with Lord Crowley. It would seem the gardener needed a reminder of his duties.

Edward had not taken but two steps past the ruined portion of path when he heard a rustling from the rhododendron bushes to his left. He waited a moment, not wanting to interrupt a liaison in progress, if that was the case. When he heard no further sounds, he continued on his way.

Unable to help his curiosity, he looked to his left through the bushes and could barely see an abandoned dancing slipper. Couldn't be bothered to worry about the shoe, he thought as a wry grin stretched over his lips. It had been too long since he had last shared the company of a woman he enjoyed. His steps were drawn up short, however, when he heard the unmistakable sound of sobbing.

The war of whether or not he should intervene waged within him until he saw a young woman crawling on the ground, surely in search of that missing shoe. The gentleman in him, no matter his reputation, was compelled to offer assistance.

He stepped off the path toward the woman and must have startled her with his presence and by the rustling of the bushes around them. Immediately she began to scramble backward, her eyes shining with panic as she glanced briefly at him. Her skirts were stained with streaks of dirt and her hair was in such a state he couldn't clearly make out her features in the darkness.

"Miss? Are you hurt?"

He heard a distressed whimper. What has happened? he thought.

Edward looked around but saw no assailant or other persons nearby. He crouched down but made no further advances toward the petrified young woman.

"Please, miss, I have no wish to harm you. Do you have a companion or a chaperone you would like me to summon?" After a long moment of silence he spoke again, more softly. "Let me help you back to the ball. We'll go in through a side door—somewhere discreet. Please."

Finally she lifted her head and looked at him. He sucked in a sharp breath. How had Isabella Swan ended up in such a predicament? From all he knew of her, which admittedly wasn't much, she was the paragon of propriety and correctness, not one taken to dallying with anyone.

As he more carefully assessed her appearance, he noticed a tear in the bodice of her gown and her hand was clutched around what appeared to be a pair of drawers which were also torn. At the sight of her damaged undergarment, Edward's blood began to boil. It was one thing for a man to slake his lust with a mistress, but to force himself on an innocent such as Miss Swan, was … dash it all, well it was an outrage.

"Who did this to you, Miss Swan?"

She shook her head and he could see her entire body trembling with fright.

"No one, my lord," she whispered.

Her reticence to disclose the identity of her attacker only served to incense him further. And while he wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her until her tongue was loosed, he wisely kept his usually volcanic temper in check.

"So you mean to tell me that you have ruined your hair, ripped your dress, and removed and torn your drawers—"

He broke off when she turned her head and he saw the vicious, red welts across her cheek. His nostrils flared as he dragged in a deep breath and tried to calm himself.

"And slapped your own face?" he asked through gritted teeth. "Forgive me if I do not believe that such a scenario occurred. Tell me who has harmed you and I will see the blackguard brought to account for his actions."

He stood up and ran a hand through his hair. His muscles bunched with the need to do something so he flipped the tails of his dark blue superfine topcoat behind him and settled his hands firmly on his hips. He began to pace and a tumult of thoughts assailed his mind as he considered how best to help the young woman. He stopped abruptly and motioned to her drawers, still clutched tightly to her bosom. "Did he manage to …" Edward couldn't even voice the possibility that she had been robbed of her virtue. And for a fleeting moment he wondered where this violent, protective instinct had come from.

She shook her head and looked down as she struggled to stand. She winced when she set her unshod foot on the ground and his anger flared once again. Whom had she been dancing with after him? He was willing to admit privately that he had kept tabs on Miss Swan after their first encounter earlier in the evening. With effort, he wracked his brain trying to recall her subsequent partners. She had been standing with her parents, Baron and Lady Greenwick, and then James, Lord Heller had bent over her hand for the same set with which Edward had danced with Miss Stanley. Heller!

If one were to compare reputations, Edward would have been considered a saint next to The Viscount Heller. He was known in many circles as a vicious man, careless with the reputations of young ladies to whom he paid court, but he was wealthy. Some might even say he was as rich as Croesus.

"Did Lord Heller do this? Did he lure you into a private turn about the gardens?"

Her eyes grew wide but she made no attempt to disabuse him of his suspicions.

In the distance a low chorus of "Isabella" and "Miss Swan" could be heard. Just as he'd feared, she had been missed and now people were looking for her.

"Miss Swan, please let me help you back to the ball before we are discovered in such a position. There's no reason to ruin your reputation by being seen with the likes of me."

She blushed and ducked her head. He thought he might have seen the barest hint of a smile, but then she took a step forward and faltered.

"I cannot walk, my lord. I fear I have s…s…sprained my ankle."

For the first time, he realized that she was shivering not only from the ordeal of her assault but from the chill in the air. Now that they were far away from the overheated ballroom, the breeze had rendered the night quite cool. With some effort, he shrugged out of the tightly fitted topcoat and draped it across her shoulders.

"Put your arm around my neck," he said as he stooped down. When she had wrapped her arm around him, her drawers still clasped in the other, he lifted her up as though she weighed not a thing, and headed toward the house.

The softness of her body as it molded to his was enticing and the subtle scent of rosewater and jasmine was intoxicating. How had he not noticed this when they had waltzed earlier in the evening? His whole being seemed to come alive as he carried this slight woman in his arms. But the feelings of excitement were dampened by several questions that had yet to be answered.

"Why did he stop?"

She let out a shaking breath and laid her head against his shoulder. For a moment he thought she might not answer him, but then he felt her arm tighten around him and she whispered close to his ear, "It was two things, I believe. I kicked and scratched him and fought; that's when he slapped me. And then I think he must have heard you coming. He had already torn my…" She sniffled and seemed at a loss for words.

"Yes, go on," prompted Edward. He understood what the scoundrel had done and didn't want Miss Swan to feel even more embarrassed than she already was. He looked down at her moonlit face and watched a lone tear trickle down her cheek. The welt, he noted with some relief, had faded and unless one knew what had happened, it would be difficult to see anything amiss with her countenance.

"He cursed and pointed his finger at me as he ran away through the bushes. And moments later you were there."

"He will pay for molesting you so." Edward was at once both perplexed and distressed by his determination to protect Miss Swan's honor. She had a brother who would certainly be more than happy to avenge this wrong. He had no business involving himself more than to return her to her kin. And why, with her head resting on his shoulder, did it feel as though his valet had tied his cravat with a hangman's noose?

. . .

What a coil! thought Isabella. She had only intended to stroll with Lord Heller along the terrace, but he had asked her about her interest in the stars and so she began chattering like an overeager canary. She had been so absorbed in her discussion of her favorite time of year for stargazing that she had failed to notice how he'd directed them to a very secluded part of the garden.

It was all she could do to keep her wits about her when he forced her against a tree, bruising her lips with punishing kisses. It had felt good to rake her fingernails down his cheek, but that only seemed to spur him on in his designs.

She burrowed her face more tightly into Lord Rushford's shoulder, willing the shame of what Lord Heller had done to her to dissipate. Had she behaved wantonly? She was quite certain she'd acted every bit the lady. As the tightness in her throat mounted and the prickles of tears grew stronger, she cursed her overactive emotions and knew she needed a moment to compose herself before she returned to the ball.

They had reached the lit portion of the garden when Isabella heard her brother's voice bellowing her name. She cast her eyes about them, looking for some place more private where she could gather herself.

"Lord Rushford, might we sit at that bench for a moment while I attempt to put myself to rights?"

She looked up into his eyes at that moment and felt all the fluttering she had felt when they had waltzed earlier in the evening. His eyes were so very green, she observed. Inwardly, she remarked on the strength of his arms, and how easily he carried her. And if she were being completely honest, she had also noticed how his coat—the coat she now wore about her own shoulders—had shown off his broad torso to advantage and how his buff colored breeches molded so perfectly to his powerful thighs and highlighted his slim hips.

As soon as the thought passed through her mind she could feel her cheeks fill with color and a strange twisting sensation stirred deep within her. For a moment she thought she saw Lord Rushford's eyes flash with … something, but she had no idea what it might have been. As soon as it was there, though, it was gone again and his face was the perfect mask of calm.

He nodded once and moved lithely to the weathered stone bench. It was mercifully tucked out of view behind a grouping of lilacs. With what seemed the utmost care, he deposited her on the bench and turned to stand as lookout.

Hastily she donned the drawers even though they were torn. It was better that than for one to be seen carrying their undergarments, she supposed. As she fussed with the bodice of her cream chiffon and lace gown she realized there was nothing to be done for it and without a looking glass, it would be impossible to even attempt to recreate the coiffure her maid had so elaborately constructed.

As the realizations began to pile up, she was overcome with a dreadful sense of hopelessness. All the earlier magic of the evening had been completely ruined. Well, perhaps not completely. She couldn't help the thrill she had felt being in the arms of such a handsome man, even if he wasn't strictly the kind of man a respectable girl such as herself should find even remotely attractive. But then there was always the mysterious allure of a man with a dangerous reputation.

It was silly to be thinking such thoughts, she chided herself. He was merely doing his gentlemanly duty to see her safely returned. That he might entertain any type of tendre for her was simply ridiculous. Besides, it seemed the gossip amongst the parlors of the ton was that he was a confirmed bachelor, much to his mother's dismay.

She twisted one last piece of hair up and pinned it into the mass of curls and braids that crisscrossed her head. "Do I still look as though I've been tumbled in the bushes?" She rested her hands in her lap and looked at the Earl.

He took several deep breaths before speaking and Isabella wondered if perhaps he himself was not feeling altogether well. His nostrils flared once and he pursed his lips as he studied her appearance. Being the subject of such obvious scrutiny drew even more color high on her cheeks. She cast her gaze to her hands and drew her lower lip between her teeth.

"Well, your color seems to have returned."

When she looked up he wore a smirk not unlike the kind her brother wore every time he teased her. "May I examine your ankle?" he asked and sat down next to her on the bench.

Without waiting for her answer, he leaned down and picked both of her feet off the ground and drew them across his lap. Her mind screamed, How dare he? But at the first touch of his warm hands on her foot, slipping off her dancing shoe, all of her righteous indignation fled.

Gently, he probed the instep of her foot, working up to the more prominent anklebones. She hissed when he pressed on a particularly tender spot. With a soft grunt he nodded, replaced her slipper, but did not lower her feet back to the ground.

"It has begun to swell slightly, but I don't believe it to be broken." The words were curt and quite clinical, but there was a honeyed warmth behind them that seemed to seep into her bones, relaxing her to an alarming degree. Never had anyone's voice, saying such mundane things, affected her so.

"And my hair, is it even remotely presentable?" She caught his gaze and felt trapped, unable to look away. The sweetness of the lilacs swirled around them as a gentle breeze drifted by and, even though she was still wrapped snugly in the Earl's topcoat, her body trembled.

For a long moment, neither of them spoke aloud, but an irresistible energy drew them closer and closer together.

"Far more than presentable," he said as his face inched closer to hers.

He lifted his hand and tentatively brushed an errant lock of hair behind her ear. As his hand slowly withdrew he allowed the tress to sift through his fingers, which he then trailed light as the fluttering of a moth's wing against her jaw.

She could feel the heat of his breath against her cheek and thought that her heart might gallop straight out of her chest.

"Isabe … Rushford! Unhand my sister at once."

Like a child's soap bubble, the magic that surrounded them popped the instant she heard Jacob's angry voice. In what must have been seconds, Jacob had hauled the Earl from the bench and pinned him up against an elm tree, his forearm at the Earl's throat.

Lord Rushford's place on the bench was immediately filled by her father who took her by the shoulders and appraised her person and of course focused on the one part of her appearance she could not remedy.

"Her dress is torn," he called to Jacob. At her father's words, Jacob's elbow pressed even more forcefully into the Earl's neck.

"Jacob, stop; this is not what it appears…" As she saw more and more of the search party congregate around their secluded bench, her heart now felt like a lead weight in her chest.

"What has the fiend done to you, my child?" her father whispered harshly.

To his credit, The Earl of Rushford simply held on to Jacob's arm, preventing complete asphyxiation but did nothing to fight back.

In a very short time it appeared that the entire ballroom had emptied onto the terrace and the pathways surrounding the stone bench where the sordid scene was unfolding. Murmurs and gasps hidden behind fans and gloved hands grew louder and louder until there was an almost deafening buzz about them.

"Jacob, call for the carriage and find your mother."

Jacob nodded and stepped away from the Earl. He straightened to his full height and glared at the gentleman. "This is not over, Rushford. I will have words with you tomorrow at White's." With that, he stormed away, shoving people carelessly out of his path.

All of a sudden, the music from the ballroom seemed to encompass the entire gathering of gawkers and Lady Crowley's voice could be heard announcing the supper set of dances. In a matter of moments the crowd had dispersed, but it was clear that The Honorable Isabella Swan, daughter of Lord and Lady Greenwick, and The Earl of Rushford would be the next on dit of the season.

. . .

By the next morning, there were already a number of wagers in the betting book at White's gentleman's club, as to whether Lord Rushford would indeed find himself leg-shackled, how soon he would wed Miss Swan, and if her brother, Mr. Swan, would kill the Earl or not.

"Tough lot there, ol' chap," said Lord Newton as Edward strode past. "Too much trouble for a bit of muslin, wouldn't you agree?"

Edward turned around and was about to plant him a facer when he was restrained bodily by two sets of arms, one large and muscular, the other more wiry, but no less powerful.

"Save your fists, Rush. There's nothing to be done for boors like Newton," said Emmett, Lord Halston, Edward's best friend.

Edward could feel the fight dissolve from his strained muscles as soon as Halston spoke the words. Jasper, Lord Whitmore, patted Edward once on the shoulder and released his hold. "Bad form, Newt," said Lord Whitmore. The trio turned from the cowed Lord Newton and retreated to one of the more private rear parlors of the club.

Both Whitmore and Halston had been present at the disastrous ball the night prior and so needed no explanation for the early morning buzz around the club's betting book. Edward had already enlightened his friends in great detail of what had actually transpired between Miss Swan and Heller. Not that it really mattered. Perception counted for ninety-nine percent when it came to a lady's reputation and in the eyes of the ton, he had been the one to compromise Miss Swan most assuredly.

"Will you go make your addresses to her papa?" asked Whitmore.

"I'm afraid I shall have to. Deuce take it, but I did not mean to land myself in such a fix."

"Come now, Rush, the chit seems biddable. She'll not put up a fuss if you wish to have your carnal freedoms, will she?" Halston asked as he shook open the daily news.

Edward groaned and raked his fingers through his hair. "That's not how the Cullen men are bred. Blast!" He tapped his fingers on the table, inwardly cursing the moral streak of fidelity that seemed to have been grafted to the very fiber of his being.

He felt the discreet touch of Whit's index finger on his forearm, alerting him to an approaching visitor. Edward looked up and saw Jacob Swan enter the parlor flanked by two young men with whom Edward was not at all acquainted.

"Rushford," greeted Swan.

"Mr. Swan," replied Edward with the merest inclination of his head.

"I am here to settle the matter of my sister's honor."

"I presumed as much. I can assure you that I shall make my addresses to Lord Greenwick and Miss Swan on the morrow."

"Did you compromise her on purpose? What was your design?" Swan stepped forward seething, his face ruddy with anger.

Edward sighed and rose from his chair. He was buoyed by the fact that his two friends immediately took their places at his sides. "I did no such thing. Did she explain what happened?"

"She did, but you should have known better than to be seen cozied up to her in such a secluded place, and with her appearance in such a state. You knew that if caught, tongues would wag. And wag they have."

Edward could see Swan's fists clenching and his chest rising and falling at an increased rate. He'd heard of Jacob Swan's short temper, but had no idea that he'd one day be on the receiving end of the man's wrath.

Unfortunately he too was at wit's end and in no mood for a tongue-lashing from this young pup. He took a step closer and pointed his finger at Swan's chest. "See here, Swan, I am already prepared to offer the protection of my name and title to your sister. What would you have had me do? Walk on and not offer my assistance? You know as well as I, that had I done that Lord Heller would have ruined not just her reputation, but would have violated her person and stolen her innocence."

The tirade had its desired effect as Swan's face twisted with frustration.

"Her reputation will be salvaged and," Edward continued, "in a few weeks' time, some other scandal will capture the notice of the gossipmongers. What more would you have me give? Would you have your pound of flesh as well?"

By now the two men were nearly nose to nose, nerves and muscles stretched taut and fists ready to pound the other into oblivion.

"Yes. That is exactly what I require," spat Mr. Swan.

"And if you kill me, then where does that leave your sister?"

"Oh, I don't want to kill you. I just want to pummel you until I'm satisfied. Someone needs to pay for this disgrace. And you are the only available candidate; no one else but us here knows of Heller's involvement."

Of course. Edward should have expected the brute would simply wish to render him unconscious. Jacob was a bit taller and much broader than Edward, but Swan was not a regular patron of Gentleman Jackson's boxing saloon as Edward himself was. He'd learned the art of tactical fighting and felt confident that he'd be able to make a decent showing.

"Well, then let us do this in grand fashion, shall we?" asked Edward.

"What did you have in mind?"

"A match at Jackson's. Until one of us is rendered unconscious or yields."

Mr. Swan glanced between his companions, seeming to share some form of silent communication. After a brief conference, he crossed his beefy arms over his chest. "Agreed. When?"

"Tomorrow afternoon. I shall call upon your father and sister in the morning."

"Very well."

As Swan turned to leave Edward called out, "Mr. Swan?"

"What now?" he growled out.

"I do have one small request."

"And that is?"

"Try not to do too much damage to my face. I would hate to have two black eyes and a crooked nose on my wedding day."

"You'll be lucky if that's all I leave you with," he grumbled and turned on his heel, striding out of the club in silence as his companions trailed after him.

After they had returned to their seats, Edward pushed out a breath.


"Yes, Rushford?"

"Do you still have a connection with a certain Bow Street informant?"

"I do. Shall I put him on the lookout for Lord Heller?"

"If you would be so kind, but nothing official, mind."

Jasper nodded his understanding, murmuring, "Of course."

"And Halston, will you stand as my second on the morrow?"

Emmett slapped a heavy hand on Edward's shoulder. "You needn't ask, my friend. I should be honored to watch you knock some sense into the man."

. . .

Isabella sat at her dressing table while her maid pinned up her hair. As she gazed at her reflection in the looking glass, she hardly recognized herself. Her eyes were dry and felt filled with sand and the dark smudges that lay under them were growing more and more difficult to conceal.

She had spent the day after the ball in near complete isolation, which suited her just fine. It was far preferable to read her book of prayers and take her sparse meals by herself than to endure the censure and berating that her father would surely continue to heap upon her head.

It had been an exercise in futility to try and explain what had happened with Lord Heller, and how Lord Rushford was really more the hero than the villain in the whole situation, but that made little difference. She had ignored good common sense and the instruction of her mama to remain on the terrace of the mansion, and had strolled with Lord Heller instead.

Her mother had been moments away from a fit of the vapors when Isabella disclosed all that had transpired. The waxed and curled tips of her father's moustache twitched in barely suppressed rage, and Jacob was frighteningly silent on the whole matter. When they'd finally arrived home, she was given a thorough dressing-down in her father's study and sent to her room like a rebellious girl not yet out of the school room.

Her maid placed a final pin and bobbed a curtsy before leaving Isabella's bedchamber. Lady Greenwick had sent her own maid with a message that Isabella was to dress in her most modest day gown and report to the formal parlor. And so she donned a simple, light blue frock, which covered her to her collar bones and bore no embellishments. Her hair was twisted into a simple knot with the barest hint of soft waves around her face.

She took her time nibbling on her toast and sipping her tea, checked her appearance again and made her way to the parlor. When she arrived, she was not at all surprised to find her mother there waiting for her. Lady Greenwick had been quite the beauty in her younger years, and still bore the refined elegance that maturity had brought to her features, but on this morn, her lips were pulled in a tight line and the worry for her daughter had drawn out the creases around her eyes.

"Good morning, Mother," said Isabella as she bent to place a kiss on her mother's cheek.

"Your father is speaking to The Earl of Rushford. I suggest you prepare yourself for his offer. You'll be the luckiest girl of the season if he does what is proper and expected."

Isabella was stunned by the declaration. This was only her second season and it had only just begun. Her first was spent almost entirely as a wallflower; she was in no way ready to consider marriage—especially not to a gentleman she hardly knew, and with such an unsavory reputation.

"Mother, I cannot marry him. I do not even know him. I—"

"Do not entertain any notion of rebellion, Isabella. If he offers, you shall accept. It is the only way to salvage your reputation, which is, at this moment, in tatters, after your comfortable coze in Lady Crowley's garden."

"But I … I had hoped to have some kind of affection for the man I married." Her voice trailed off into nearly nothing as she bowed her head and fought against the tears that threatened.

She heard the rustling of her mother's voluminous skirts and felt the settee dip as she sat down. A gentle finger lifted Isabella's chin and she looked into her mother's softened gaze. "My child, I would that it were possible we could all be in love when we marry. But circumstances often dictate otherwise. If you do not accept Lord Rushford, your prospects of a good match will vanish. And there are far worse fates than becoming a countess, don't you think?"

The door opened at that moment and a footman announced Lord Rushford and Lord Greenwick.

"My lady, if you will accompany me, there are a few matters we must attend to," said Isabella's father as he looked to her mother. "Isabella, the Earl has a matter of utmost importance to discuss with you." He leveled her with a look that clearly said he expected her to accept the Earl's proposal, nodded once and led her mother from the room. The footman closed the door and then it was just her and Lord Rushford.

He was breathtakingly handsome, to be sure, dressed in a dark brown topcoat with fine gold embroidery along the edges. Underneath, he wore a tan colored waistcoat with a gold watch fob and chain strung across the front. His crisp, white linen neckcloth was simply, yet elegantly knotted, and his breeches clung sinfully to his hips and thighs until they disappeared into a pair of highly polished top boots.

It appeared that he attempted to bring some sense of order to his hair, but it had either been mussed through by his own hand or simply refused to be tamed. If one were only to consider his hair, one would think he'd just risen from his bed. And the mere thought of Lord Rushford in his bed sent her mind into a frenzy of embarrassment and shame. Whatever was she thinking, allowing her mind to travel down such paths?

While she'd been cataloguing his appearance he seemed to be doing the very same to hers. At once she felt exposed and quite vulnerable to this man. She ducked her head and couldn't think of a single thing to say.

"Miss Swan, I … How do you fare?"

His voice was hesitant and when she looked up she thought she saw him pinch his eyes shut and shake his head.

"I am as fine as can be expected."

"Yes, well. To the matter at hand, then." He cleared his throat and stood in front of her. "Your father and I have discussed the situation and I am prepared to offer you the protection of my name. I should have thought to use a great deal more discretion in handling the matter at the ball and for that, I do apologize."

His hands were clasped behind his back and his tone was rich with formality and propriety and icicles. He'd seemed so alive the night of the ball, so vital. But this man was all coldness and duty and she hated it.

"The protection of your name," she said. "And what exactly would that mean?" She opened her eyes wide and looked every bit the innocent she was. And while she was young, she was not entirely a green girl straight from the skirts of her nurse. She'd had some experience to know that there were varying levels of commitment in ton marriages.

His forehead wrinkled together as he coughed a few times and paced toward the fireplace. He rested his arm on the mantle and looked up at her. She hadn't moved from the center of the parlor and when their eyes met, her spine straightened and she squared her shoulders to return his gaze directly.

"You would be my wife, The Countess of Rushford, you would have a generous allowance to purchase whatever you desire, and any supposed scandal that may have tongues wagging today would practically disappear once we are wed."

"Do you wish to marry me?"

Her question seemed to catch him off guard, but to his credit, he regained his composure almost immediately. "Of course I do. I feel immensely … protective of you. I care a great deal for you."

"And is there anyone else for whom you care a great deal?"

"I beg your pardon, but I don't follow."

She twisted her fingers together as she summoned the courage to confront this one issue that seemed to be so very prevalent in society marriages, but that she could not countenance in her own. "Do you support a … a mistress?" she asked, the last word coming out as barely a whisper. She glanced up and watched his eyes grow wide. Quickly she cast her gaze down and rambled on. "Because I do not believe I could stand such an arrangement. I would rather be a ruined woman and marry a nobody and live in the country for the rest of my life than to have to share a husband with another woman." Again, her voice faded into nothing as she maintained her gaze steadfastly to the ground.

"I do not have a mistress and once we are wed, I will remain faithful to you and you alone. You have nothing to worry about on that score."

For one brief moment she was immensely relieved until the weight of his words sunk into her mind. If he had no mistress, then he would expect a marriage in name and in deed. She swallowed thickly and nodded her head.

"Isabella," he began and then paused. "May I call you Isabella?"

"Yes, my lord."

He had moved from the fireplace and now stood directly in front of her. "Will you call me Edward?" he asked. His voice had dropped to a soothing tenor which wrapped around her insides and calmed her every nerve.

Tentatively, she looked up from beneath her eyelashes and nodded.

"Very well. Isabella, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

"Yes, Edward. I will marry you."

. . .

It had been two days since the boxing match with Swan, and it had gone better than Edward had hoped. Jacob managed to land only one glancing blow to his jaw, leaving a faint shadow of a bruise there. The rest of him, however, was a veritable patchwork of blues, purples, greens, and yellows. He gave as good as he got, though, and Gentleman Jackson ended up declaring the contest a tie after twelve rounds and both men still standing.

He winced as he climbed into the seat of his high-perch phaeton and took the reins from his tiger. It would not be easy to conceal his injuries from Isabella. As he drove his phaeton to the Swan home, he considered—as he had many times already—his lack of distress at falling into a parson's mousetrap.

It wasn't really a surprise that Isabella had accepted his proposal. Had she not, well, it wouldn't have been pleasant in London for her or her family anymore. No, the greater surprise was that he felt none of the panic or desire to flee as he had with every other prospective bride he'd encountered. He hadn't even balked at promising his fidelity to her.

The one thing that did bother him was that he'd been unsuccessful in locating Lord Heller. He felt it his duty now to call the villain to account for his actions against Miss Swan. If the man would not apologize for his behavior, a duel seemed the only recourse.

To his surprise and great pleasure, Isabella was ready only moments after he had been admitted into the foyer. His feet seemed to have sprouted roots that kept him completely immobile as he watched her descend the stairs. She wore a fashionable lemon colored dress that showed to advantage her slim waist and was surely in the highest of fashions, her straw bonnet was trimmed with a spray of white and yellow flowers, and yet, her smile was obviously forced.

Perhaps she was not pleased with her lot. Did not every young woman desire to snare a peer for a husband? He didn't think himself a hardship to look at and he'd promised to be generous, so he was genuinely perplexed with her cloudy demeanor. He would have to suss her out during their drive.

"Good afternoon, Miss Swan. You are as lovely as a summer day." He took her gloved hand in his and raised it to his lips.

"Thank you, my lord," she said as that delicious blush infused her cheeks with pink.

"Have you driven in a phaeton before?"

"No, I have not. Is it terribly high?"

"The highest," he said with a grin and tucked her hand through his arm.

They crept along Rotten Row at the most fashionable hour to see and be seen, nodding at some, conversing with others. Both Whitmore and Halston had stopped to chat for a moment and took the opportunity to embarrass Edward until he felt his ears burn scarlet. To her credit, Isabella was demure, yet managed to handle his friends with a practiced expertise.

When they had parted, an open barouche filled with the resident dragons of the beau monde approached. Edward braced himself for the old women, so high in the instep that they'd snub even one of their own if it threatened their standing amongst their peers, to give Isabella the cut direct. He turned on his most charming smile and tipped the brim of his hat to the women. He was gratified when they each nodded at him as well as Isabella, their plumed hats bobbing in such a way as to invoke thoughts of strange birds pecking for seeds on the ground.

It would seem that news of their engagement had circulated through the parlors of London and that already, his attachment to her had offered Isabella protection in society.

He directed them to a less congested avenue and turned slightly toward his fiancée. "I've acquired a special license to marry. I thought this Friday would give you enough time to have your maid pack your things and have them delivered to my home. Is that enough time for you to prepare?"

Her gaze was unfocused as she twirled her parasol in lazy circles. "Yes. I believe that will be enough time. Mother has a modiste working 'round the clock, but my gown should be ready by then." She was quiet for a moment then burst into laughter. "The poor woman nearly fell over herself for the privilege of making the new Countess of Rushford's wedding dress." Her voice trailed off and all of a sudden she grew shy. "We'll be going to Bond Street tomorrow for my other bride clothes, so there is little else for me to assemble."

He was disarmed by her effortless humility. It simply added to her appeal.

"Do you have any opinion on the location? Somewhere small and private perhaps?"

Had this been a normal courtship, he was sure they'd be reserving St. George's in Hanover square since that was where all the most fashionable ton weddings took place. His mother would've insisted upon it if only to accommodate all their acquaintances, however as this was not a conventional wedding ceremony, but one which needed to take place much more expeditiously, he thought a smaller chapel would serve their needs better.

"Whatever you think best," she replied, her voice flat and devoid of any hint of emotion.

He snapped the reins and continued, not really paying attention to the condition of the pathway on which they traveled. He was still trying to figure out her lack of enthusiasm, when the wheels on his side of the vehicle drove over a sizeable defect in the path. Isabella was jostled so that she bumped into Edward's side with considerable force.

The sharp intake of breath gave him just long enough to bite back the oaths that rested on the tip of his tongue, but he could not stop his free hand from cradling his bruised ribs.

"I am terribly sorry, my lo … Edward. I did not think I jarred you so."

"No, it is not your fault. I … am not usually so careless with the ribbons," he responded, his teeth clamped tightly shut.

She simply looked at him with a perplexed expression creasing her forehead.

He waved his hand away and assumed a mask of relaxed enjoyment. "Why do you not seem at all pleased with our arrangement?"

She sighed, her mouth turned in a slight frown and her eyes looking down and away from him. "It is rather silly, really."

"Nothing that is important to you could be silly." He slowed the horses to a stop under a bower of fragrant trees and turned to face Isabella completely.

"I suppose I just feel … very inexperienced."

"Shall we try and remedy that, my darling?" He took her hand in his and stroked his thumb over her knuckles, as though he were trying to soothe a wild animal.

"Whatever do you mean?" Her voice was a sensual whisper that pierced him to the core and sent flourishes of warmth through his body.

"May I try something?"

She blinked once, twice, her warm brown eyes wide with uncertainty. "Yes?"

The question in her voice made him smile. He held her gaze and inched his face closer and closer until they were a mere breath apart. Patience was paramount as he felt that same tension which crackled between them the night of the ball reawaken and draw them together.

He waited until she had closed her eyes before he crossed the distance between them and pressed his lips to hers. She was all soft and sweetness as he moved his mouth gently, learning those first intimate responses to him. Her stiffened posture melted away and he held her pliant in his arms. With an aching slowness, he sucked on her plump bottom lip and reveled in the soft little noises she made.

It was impossible to get carried away since they were, in a manner, chaperoned by the footman at the back of his phaeton and they were still in view of a portion of the public traversing Hyde Park. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the eager way her hands clutched at his biceps and how she leaned into his embrace.

When the kiss came to its natural end, he smiled and squeezed her hands gently. "Despite what you may have heard of my reputation, I do want you to be happy. I count it my foremost pursuit to ensure it. In a very short time you have come to mean the world to me, Isabella, and though it may be backward, I hope that once we are wed, you will allow me to court your properly."

She bit her lip and turned her face just enough that it was obscured by the brim of her bonnet but he was fairly certain she hid a smile as she said, "That sounds lovely."

. . .

It had been a week—A week!—since their wedding and Edward had done nothing more than kiss her on the cheek or forehead before they retired to separate bedchambers. She hadn't even set foot in his private rooms.

They had sequestered themselves inside their Mayfair townhouse and spent the days quizzing one another on all their respective likes and dislikes, on books, and even a bit on politics. But every night, he would escort her to the door of her bedroom, kiss her like her brother might, and then retire to his own room.

The night before their nuptials, her mother had spoken plainly about the duty all wives were expected to perform, and Isabella had mentally prepared herself for such a wedding night, but it never came. And with each day they spent in genial conversation, the more and more she grew to like and perhaps even love Edward. But every night he sent her off to bed alone felt like a greater rejection.

She lay in her large, lonely bed and stared at the heavy brocaded tapestries that formed the canopy, fuming. Enough was enough. She threw off the covers and slipped into her dressing gown as she marched through first her dressing room then his. Thankfully, his valet must have already retired for the evening, as he was nowhere in sight.

Without so much as a knock, she opened the door to his bedroom and stopped short. He had just removed his dressing gown and stood there in his altogether with one hand on the counterpane of his bed. The fire glowed on one side of the room and a branch of candles sat on the table next to the bed, illuminating his features in a warm glow. At first her eyes were captivated by the lean and well defined muscles of his upper back, and how they led sinuously down to the two dimples above his shapely behind, but as her gaze lingered, she noticed the numerous shadows of fading bruises that covered his torso and parts of his legs.

"Good Lord," she gasped. "What has happened to you?"

His shoulders slumped as he retrieved his dressing gown and shrugged into it. Slowly, he walked to where she stood riveted to the floor, tying his sash and tucking his hands into the pockets of his robe.

"It is nothing, my sweet. Please do not concern yourself."

"Is this why you have not touched me since our wedding?"

"I did not wish you to see me in such a battered state and I knew if I were to do more than kiss you, I would not have been able to bridle my passions."

"What happened?"

"Ah, I had an overly enthusiastic sparring partner at Jackson's boxing saloon a while back."

Timidly, she spread open the top of his gown. It was the first time she'd ever touched his bare skin in this way and while her nerves were frayed with apprehension, her concern for him won out. She traced her fingers along his chest, swirling and circling some of the larger bruises. As she did this, she considered how long it took bruises to heal. In her childhood she had been quite clumsy and was well versed in such matters. She narrowed her eyes and wrapped her fingers tightly in the lapels of his robe. "Who was your partner?"

"I … can't say as—"

"Please be honest with me. I cannot abide liars."

As he stared at her for a long moment his gaze shifted, focusing on first one of her eyes, then the other. "It was your brother," he said with a sigh.

"And he is the one who gave you the bruise here, I suppose?" She smoothed her palm against the stubble on his jaw. She had wondered about the shadow she'd seen there when they drove in the park, but hadn't remembered to ask him about it after that first kiss.



"He felt the need to defend your honor and I was the only available person from whom he could exact satisfaction."

Her grip tightened on his lapels until she growled and shoved him away. "How positively stupid! You had already offered for me and I had accepted. Why would you allow him to pummel you so?"

He approached her with that soothing voice of his but she wanted no part of it now. She took a step farther away from him but he followed her.

"The challenge had been issued before I offered for you. Had I begged off, I would have been made the fool. And I cannot say as I blame him. Had I a sister in the same predicament, I would've have acted likewise. It is how I feel about Lord Heller. Once I discover the whereabouts of that filthy piece of gutter slime, he will wish to turn up his toes of his own accord before I am through with him."

She shrugged off his hands which had snaked their way up to her shoulders and took another step back. At once she felt as though she might cast up her crumpets, she was so ill. "And what good would that do? Will you beat him into unconsciousness?" she asked, gesturing to his still-healing body.

He winced and shrugged lamely.

"Will you challenge him to a duel?" When he made no move in response, she gasped. "You would chance to leave me a widow less than a month after our marriage? A marriage which we have not yet consummated?"

His eyes seemed to blaze at that comment and he closed the distance between them in one stride. When his hands clamped onto the tops of her arms, he drew her face nose to nose with his. "Do not think for one moment, Isabella, that I do not wish to consummate our marriage. I have burned for you from the moment we stepped over the threshold of this house as husband and wife."

His lips crashed against hers in an urgent, show of want. He slid his hands from her arms over her shoulders and up her neck until he cupped her face, holding it to his own, turning it to ease the way for his ravishing mouth to nip and suck at every tender bit of flesh along her neck.

She grew dizzy as he traveled from one side of her neck to the other. Their bodies were pressed together from knees to chests and the sensations that swirled wildly through her were overwhelming. When he reached her ear he whispered, "It is a matter of honor," and that was all it took to snap her from the lust-filled haze into which she had been drawn.

"Go then," she said harshly and pushed away from him. "Seek your satisfaction, but do not come to me. I could not bear it if I gave you my entire self only to have you killed over something that means so very little now. Isabella Swan is no more, and neither is the need to avenge her honor. There is only Lady Isabella Cullen, Countess of Rushford, who is, as you know, one of the most sought after guests in all of London."

She turned from the room and ran into her bedchamber. She had just enough wherewithal to lock both the door to her dressing room and the door to the hallway before she threw herself onto the bed and sobbed until her eyes were dry.

. . .

Edward waited for over an hour, but Isabella did not join him in the breakfast parlor. She truly was quite vexed about the whole affair. He wished there was some way he could make her understand how important her honor was and how it now reflected on him. He wouldn't even attempt to explain the reasons why he could not simply walk away from a challenge.

The prospect of a duel with Heller was there, but certainly not the first avenue he would explore in his attempt to call the man to account. If Heller would not be reasonable, then things would unfortunately escalate. Only the situation itself would dictate how far. All of that was moot until the dastard had been located, though.

He'd left the door of his study open in the hopes of hearing when Isabella finally emerged from her chamber, and the mere prospect of seeing her had distracted him from completing the correspondence his steward had given him that morning. He was staring at the empty fireplace when his butler knocked and announced the arrival of Lord Whitmore.

Edward stood to greet his friend, who declined the butler's offer to take his coat and hat.

"I don't believe I shall tarry overlong, Forbes, but thank you."

"Morning, Whit. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Lord Whitmore looked appraisingly at Edward and shook his head. "You look terrible, Rushford. The little wife not pleasing you?"

"Utter another word on the subject and you shall find you may be missing some teeth," growled Edward.

"Easy, friend. I have other news to discuss. Heller's been spotted."

At the mention of the scoundrel's name, Edward's entire being grew tense with that singular sensation one has when preparing for a fight. He flexed his hands and began to pace the length of his study. "Where? Has he returned to his home?"

"No, he was seen last night at a gaming hell near Covent Garden."

"Your Bow Street friend is tailing him, I presume?"

"Of course."

"Then what are we doing standing around woolgathering?"

When they found James Bartlett, Viscount Heller, he was still inebriated from the previous night's indulgences, face down in the gaming club. The weary proprietor explained that he'd tried to send the Viscount home but that Lord Heller had refused and threatened violence if any were to move him bodily. It went without saying that the authorities weren't called in because the majority of the activities that went on in that establishment were not strictly legal. That didn't deter Edward, however, in his quest to extract an apology for his now wife.

"Lord Heller, I should like a word with you."

The Viscount lifted his head, his eyes bloodshot and watering. He was about to lay his head back down on the table when understanding must have finally penetrated the haze of drink that clouded his mind. "Rushford? That you? Poor sot, you are. Landing yourself with a leg shackle as cold as a fish." He began laughing and attempted to stand but slumped back into his seat.

"You behaved in a most heinous way toward my wife, Heller. I will have your apology to her at once." Edward stood with his arms braced on the opposite side of the table as the Viscount.

"You see, Rush," continued Heller as though Edward had said nothing, "it's not good form to take the chit astride you in plain view of her papa. You have to be smarter about these things. At least I had the forethought to bear her off to a nice dark corner of the garden to ravish her properly."

"Heller, I warn you—"

"Doesn't she have the creamiest thighs you've ever seen? It's a right shame she had to ruin things by carrying on like a hellcat. What I would give to be able to sink into th—"

In the blink of an eye, Lord Rushford's fist connected with Heller's nose with an awful crunch and laid him out flat on his back. Edward would've leapt on top of the man and continued his assault had it not been for Jasper's restraining hands holding Edward back.

James stood on shaky legs, wiping the blood away from his nose. "What the devil are you playing at, Rushford?"

"You will apologize to Lady Rushford."

"She barely got what she deserved, the tease, making eyes and overtures all night and then to turn into a proper little prudish thing …"

Edward slowly removed the leather glove from one hand and then the other, taking care to straighten each finger as he tugged them off. In one fluid movement he slapped the gloves across Viscount Heller's face, noting with satisfaction the three pink scars Isabella had left on his right cheek.

A sick, hysterical bark of laughter burst from Heller's mouth. "You are challenging me, then?"

Edward remained impassive.

"What's it to be? Another bout of fisticuffs at Jackson's? I assure you I will not spare your pretty face as the Swan lad did."

"Pistols, tomorrow at dawn. Who is your second?"

Heller narrowed his eyes and cast his eyes about the growing population of the club. "Lord Alec Winters," he stated with a cold gleam in his eye.

"Lord Halston will be in contact with him to determine the field of honor. Good day."

As they mounted their horses, Lord Whitmore turned to Edward with a look of grave concern. "Are you sure this is what you want?"

"What's done is done. I cannot recall the challenge without appearing the coward."

"Very well, my lord. I shall stand at your side with Halston."

Edward spent the rest of the day cloistered—hiding really—in his study. Isabella was noticeably absent from their home when he'd returned from issuing his challenge to Lord Heller. The butler had given him a note stating that his wife would be spending the day with her particular friends, Ladies Hale and Brandon, but made no mention of when she would return.

He took his meal alone and returned once again to his study. After he'd poured a generous glass of port, he opened the case which held his weapons. He carefully examined the moving parts and assured himself that all was in proper working order. It was well after dark when he heard Isabella's voice echoing through the foyer.

"Is Lord Rushford at home?" she asked Forbes.

"Yes, my lady. He is in the study," came the formal reply.

"Thank you, Forbes. That will be all."

He imagined the butler's bow and before he had the chance to think of the implications of having his pistols in full display on his desk, she was there in the doorway.

"Edward, I just wanted to …" her voice faded when her gaze fell inevitably on the dueling pistols. An expressionless veneer shuttered her features as she continued. "I just wanted to let you know I was home."

"Isabella …"

"Goodnight, Edward."

. . .

She couldn't sleep a wink. As soon as she'd spotted the pistols on his desk she felt sick to her stomach. All night long, she waited to hear any movement from Edward's bedchamber, but there was nothing. As the hours dragged on, her unease multiplied until she was trembling with nerves.

In the pre-dawn darkness, she lit a single candle and made her way to the kitchen looking for a biscuit or something she could nibble on to settle her stomach. Her heart dropped down to the soles of her feet when she overheard Forbes telling the housekeeper that Edward had already left.

"He's goin' through with tha' bloody duel?" asked Mrs. Cope.

"It would seem so," Forbes replied.

"The poor girl, she was so out of sorts yesterday, and just when I thought they were beginnin' to warm up to each other," crooned the housekeeper.

This was madness. How was she supposed to sit around and wait for news as to whether her husband was dead or alive? She cleared her throat, startling the two servants. "Forbes, please have a footman saddle my horse."

His eyebrows raised a half an inch before he schooled his features and replied with a single nod.

"When you're finished with him, me lady, bring him here an' I'll box his ears," said Mrs. Cope with a wink and a twinkle in her eye.

During her daily meetings with the housekeeper, Isabella had learned that Mrs. Cope had served Edward since he was a lad of seventeen and had just accepted the rank of Earl after his father's death. She'd also noticed how the woman fussed over her husband like a second mother.

"You can count on it, to be sure, Mrs. Cope."

Isabella rushed back to her chamber and dressed in her riding habit without bothering to ring for her maid. She tied her hair in a simple queue and ignored the numerous hats that hung in her dressing room.

Forbes held the door open and as she passed he murmured, "Hyde park, just north of the Serpentine."

"Thank you, Forbes."

The groom helped her up into the side-saddle and she urged the animal into slow trot until she had her seat and then gave him his head. She leaned over and rode skillfully at a gallop, until she reached the entrance of the park.

Foreboding gray mist blanketed the scene but she pressed forward toward the bridge. Morning light peeked over the horizon and the air was still crisp as it whipped around her face.

As she crossed the bridge, she could see a gathering of gentlemen, two of whom had already faced off and were just then turning. Faintly, she could hear Lord Halston calling out, "Ready. Aim. Fire!"

At the same moment she careened toward the group and screamed, "NO!" but she was too late. The shots had already been fired. She leapt from the horse and tore through the crowd of men.

"Edward!" she called out as she broke through the front line of spectators. Lord Heller stood to her left, his pistol pointed straight in front of him, a look of bewilderment on his face. She then turned to her right to see Edward, his arm raised to the sky.

Edward's eyes flashed wide, his expression filled with a mixture of fury, concern and something else she couldn't identify. "I am satisfied. Let it be known that Lord Heller is a debaucher of innocence and a dishonorable blackguard." He lowered his pistol and strode toward her.

Before he reached her, though, another gunshot ripped through the quiet, misty morning. To her horror, Edward howled in pain and crumpled the ground as a cacophony of disapproving censures was directed at Lord Heller.

Her focus narrowed to her husband, writhing on the ground as blood seeped through his breeches. She fell to her knees as her hands fluttered over his injured leg.

"Stay back, Isabella, this is no place for you," he gritted out. "Whit, take her back home."

"No. I'm not leaving. I can help."

"Dammit, woman, why will you not do as I say."

"Because I love you," she shouted, "and I'll not leave your side." She placed one hand on his sweat-dampened cheek and looked into his eyes. "Lord Whitmore, is there a physician present?" she asked without tearing her eyes away from Edward.

"Here, my lady. I'll just see to binding the wound," replied a gray-haired gentleman carrying a black satchel.

Edward threw his head back on the grass and roared. "Be quick about it. I am not sure how much longer I can remain conscious."

Once his leg was bound, Whitmore and Halston assisted Edward into the doctor's carriage, and then Whitmore handed Isabella inside as well. They made their way home as quickly as possible, Edward's head resting on Isabella's lap the entire time.

When they arrived at Cullen House, Halston began administering copious amounts of brandy until Rushford was thoroughly foxed.

The doctor was efficient in his procedures, making sure to extract the entire ball, though he was the recipient of a lengthy string of vitriol from the Earl. The doctor promised to return and check the dressing on the wound the following day and promptly exited the room.

Isabella sat next to her husband, mopping his forehead with cool water. He was rather insensible from the liquor as well as the laudanum the doctor had administered, but he still managed to crack his eyes open.

"Did you mean it?"

"Why was your pistol raised when I arrived?"

He scowled and said, "I shot into the air. The cur wasn't worth even a single bullet." He paused and searched her eyes. "Did you mean what you said? That you love me?"

"Yes, you ridiculously honorable man. I love you."

"As I love you. 'Tis why I had to confront him the way I did." His voice was slurred and full of sleep, but still fervent.

"Well, you're going to have to come up with a different way of expressing it. I don't think I could bear to see you … For a moment I thought you were dead."

"I shall never leave your side again, my love."

He closed his eyes and his breathing slowed. She thought he'd finally fallen into sleep until she felt the gentle pressure of his hand around hers.

"I fear I shall be a useless husband for the next several weeks until the wound is well on its way to healing." He looked pointedly into her eyes and it took her a moment to understand his true meaning.

She blushed and turned her head away. "Don't be vulgar. It is far too early in the morning."

"I will require a great deal of nursing and special care, you know."

"Yes, the doctor explained what would need to be done. I shall take extra special care of you, my lord," she said as she traced her finger over the smattering of hair on his chest.

"Vixen." He smiled with his eyes closed. "These next weeks will be torture."

"I do hope so. Perhaps next time you won't be so quick to do something as foolish as this."

She leaned over and pressed her lips to his. He wrapped one hand around the back of her neck and held her gently in place as he feasted on her mouth, nibbling and sucking and groaning.

He dropped his head on the pillow and looked deeply into her eyes. "When my leg has healed, the first order of business will be to see to the matter of an heir for the Earldom."

"Agreed," she whispered and lay down next to him on the bed for the first time.

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