Great and Unfortunate Desires by Gina Danna by Gina Danna - Read Online

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Great and Unfortunate Desires - Gina Danna

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Acknowledgements

Prologue

Afghanistan, June 1868

The blade slid inside the skin with ease, like butter. Blood, deep red, seeped around the steel, spilling downward. The victim helped force the weapon into his own flesh, but as the sword sliced into the organs beneath, his hand dropped lazily. The muted gasp of pain, barely audible from the man kneeling before him, registered in the killer’s ears.

Tristan St. James stood, his hand on the hilt of the sword, every nerve inside him on fire. Appalled at what he had been forced to do, he fought against showing his anguish. If there was a Hell, it was here, on Earth, right now in front of him. His vision blurred.

The man before him, Grifton Reynard, looked hard at him. As his robes turned crimson, he gagged and blood dripped from the corner of his mouth.

Promise me you’ll take care of her, he gritted out. Promise me!

I promise. And I will find the bastard who did this, Tristan hissed, his voice low and angry.

His friend gave a tense nod. He coughed a rattling noise as he choked, blood spewing like a geyser from his mouth. It hit Tristan on his face, adding to the stream from his own wound there, and staining the cream and maroon-trimmed cotton of his robes. But it didn’t matter. He couldn’t move, his feet firmly glued to the hard dirt surface. Grifton fell backward, his body thudded against the ground, eyes open but no longer seeing, his mouth askew, his lips and chin covered in his blood.

The sword fell free and hit the ground with a clank, as if it’d hit a rock.

His best friend, and his subordinate in this awful war of intrigue, lay dead before Tristan, by his hand. A pain–deep, gut wrenching and as violent as the act he’d just committed–seized his chest, strangling his heart. Swallowing hard, he shut his eyes for just a moment, an attempt to subdue the pain, to deaden it.

Unable to leave Grifton there, he bent and grabbed the man’s arms, yanked him up and threw him over his shoulder. The lifeless body hung like a sack of grain. Not that Tristan cared. No, his mind was assessing, reassessing and analyzing the material in his head. Like the cold-blooded killer they had made him, he narrowed the field of suspects who could have orchestrated this. Someone with everything to gain and more to lose if it failed.

He’d find out who had betrayed him and his men, the man responsible for their deaths, and kill him.

Chapter One

London, 1869

Gaslights glowed faintly around the room, aided by the flames from the old-style candelabras, dancing across the white marble floor and the white walls decked with floral swags. Lady Evelyn Hurstine, daughter of Lord Bernard Hurstine, the Baron Brimridge, watched the swirling of silk gowns in pinks, yellows, blues, and pale greens joined with black cutaway jackets and trousers of the couples on the dance floor. Fanning herself with the lightweight paper and lace fan, she swallowed the lump in her throat, forcing herself not to run from the balcony.

This was a ball. A dance, nothing more. This mantra repeated in her head over and over again. But it wasn’t just a soiree of the usual sort. Lord Sexton’s Solstice Ball was one of the Season’s beginning crushes. Everyone in London Society wanted an invitation to it. One she prayed to Heaven above to avoid.

She breathed deeply but it wasn’t calming. Floral scents, mixed with wax, gas fumes, wool and wafts of heavy perfume filled the air. London in High Season, and she was here to find a husband. Again, to attract some gullible fool, or so her father had stated, for he’d no longer abide her past beau. No, she needed to be married. Her skin crawled at the thought...oh, there were plenty of men here looking for a wife, preferably of a good family, one that still offered a generous dowry.

Her hands clenched. Men and their preferences. Obedience, subservience, a hefty dowry and maidenhead intact.

Eyes shut, she remembered back before that night when her life drastically changed. It was just before his departure close to three years ago. Grifton Richard George Reynard, Viscount Stauton, stood before her, dressed in his uniform, his hat sat cockily on his head, and a lopsided grin spread across his face. She missed him so, like a deep stabbing pain. Three long years since he left, promising to return. No word from him in over a year. Her argument to her father that Grifton, or Richard as he liked to be called, had asked for her hand and she had agreed. Though Richard hadn’t formally spoken to her father, she assured Papa that would be rectified on his return.

She still waited as her father’s patience waned.

And in the interim, her fear grew that Richard might not come home...

Evelyn, there you are!

With practice gained over the last two years, Evelyn closed the vision of Richard in her mind, forced her hands to release their tight grip, and curved her lips into a tight smile. She turned to find her friend, Lady Sarah Winston, coming to her. Evelyn’s smile relaxed. Sarah’s frightened look reminded her of her first presentation to Society those years ago. Eighteen now seemed such a young age for all the soirees and balls, but it was the time in every lady’s life they waited ever so expectantly for. A time to be courted and admired by all the gallant men...No, she wouldn’t ruin her friend’s expectations because of her circumstances. Sarah had an unblemished past, unlike her own. How could anyone know the devious minds of the wicked? The ones who preyed on hopeful, naïve young women...

She forced her grin to spread wider, as if that was possible. Evelyn knew Sarah refused to believe anything was bad.

Shaking these thoughts from her head, she reached for Sarah’s outstretched hands and grasped them tightly. Look at you, she murmured softly. Quite a beauty tonight.

Sarah blushed. The young lady’s blonde ringlets cascaded down the left side of her head, flowers tucked on the right. Her buttercup-colored silk dress with its white ruffles and lace bounced above the bustle in the back and glowed under the lights. Evelyn would have to get Sarah to stop prancing so much, for a proper lady did not flounce her skirts as if she were one of ill-repute.

Narrowing her gaze, Evelyn tried not to laugh but couldn’t help it. Now, Sarah, you need to calm down. I understand the giddiness of your first ball, but we don’t want to hear on the morrow how the gossip mongers speak of you twittering like a schoolgirl.

Sarah gave her a nod but burst into laughter. But it is so exciting! Did you see? Lord Beckwourth is here. And so are Lords Martinwood and Smythington and...

Evelyn laughed. Yes, my dear. If you just smiled, no doubt they’d be drawn to you.

And you as well, Sarah leaned in, as if it were a secret. They’ll all want to dance with you. You are so beautiful. She leaned in closer and kissed Evelyn’s cheek. That pink is brilliant on you.

Evelyn’s cheeks burned, the blush making her face look lively despite the loneliness and fear that had gripped her earlier. Only Sarah knew how to change her mood from dismal to light. Her friend’s talent didn’t stop there, either. She had picked out Evelyn’s dress for tonight. The iced pink silk wrapped around her, the skirt cascading like water over a cliff. Her own bustle displayed layers of white Belgian lace and tulle with corded pink trim. The dress was expensive, exotic and too much for Evelyn’s taste, but how could she refuse Sarah? The woman was like a sister to her.

Sarah tucked an errant strand of hair behind Evelyn’s ear, repositioning the auburn curl and securing it with a pearl hairpin. She smiled, capturing Evelyn’s eyes, as if reading her friend’s mind.

You look stunning. I shall pale in your presence.

Evelyn rolled her eyes upward. Once upon a time, she believed she was beautiful, the type of lady every man wanted. Richard made her think she was. Funny how time could change that. Ruination took beauty and destroyed it.

Hardly, my dear. She took Sarah’s arm, tucking it in the crook of her arm. Let us go and see what we can find. I’ll wager you that pearl and diamond brooch at Wyndom’s you’ll have more admirers than me.

Sarah laughed. Hardly a fair bet. You’ll attract the most. Besides, as you have taught me, it isn’t ladylike to wager.

Evelyn smiled. A minor exchange is hardly the same as a bet that White’s wager books keep. She directed her friend toward the grand staircase to enter the party. Although she did not want to be here because of her desire to have heard from Richard and wishing he’d never left her, she tamped down the urge to leave. No, she would be Sarah’s chaperone, a position she could easily fulfill considering her own ineligibility, which also would enable the girl to win their bet. With Sarah at her side, perhaps she’d survive the night after all.

***

Tristan leaned against the white marble column, eyeing the dancers in front of him as he fought an urge to rip his necktie off. It, along with the heat from the gaslights, candles and people, suffocated him. The mindless chatter and the string music buzzed, growing to a roar, like soldiers marching in a field...Damn! He needed to concentrate or he’d lose his wits again. Quickly he downed the rest of the champagne and almost gagged. The bubbly concoction wasn’t what he wanted.

Memories of earlier that afternoon flooded his mind. His father’s solicitor had stood before him, eyeglass in place, reading from his father’s will.

And with due reluctance, I, William Edward Henry St. James, Fourth Marquis of Wrenworth, leave the estates and all possessions to my surviving son, Tristan Richard St. James... And the monotone of Thomas Burke of Burke & Sons Services continued on about the various properties and commitments Tristan was now responsible for. It was a position he wasn’t supposed to have. He had two other brothers in line for the title, but illness took the oldest and a duel the next in line, leaving Tristan as sole heir.

He snorted at the solicitor as the line was read of his father’s reluctance. The two had parted company years ago when his father, in a fit of rage, disowned him. Drink, women and gambling, the old man ranted, would destroy Tristan, but if that’s what he wanted, then get out. The old man never understood. Tristan did as directed; he’d gone to the seminary and studied for two years but could never adhere to the religious calling. Instead, he went into the army, commissioned as an ensign, a low rank, typical of many lords. With his father’s aid, it could have been higher, but he hadn’t cared. Go and serve, as a third son should...well, he should have stayed in the ministry, yet his marksmanship aligned more with the military than the pulpit. He excelled as a soldier until his service in Afghanistan changed everything—A career cut short, not by foreign enemies but by his father. The man summoned him home.

Tristan, I am dying, the elder Marquis stated flatly from his bed. You will be the next Marquis of Wrenworth.

Father, no, my men need me...

No, my son, your family needs you.

He ran his fingers through his dark brown hair in frustration. I’m not trained for the position of lord. You made sure of that. Give it to Matthew or Joseph— his cousins hadn’t been in the murderous East, seen what war does to a man. They had been schooled and coddled for the listless life of the nobility.

No. The law is exact. Direct bloodlines. A fact you’ve known all your life.

But you disowned me!

Never, my son. And you knew that. The man coughed, the rattling in his chest loud and clear. The blood on the linen he used to cover his mouth all too telling. In fact, I am counting on you.

The last words he heard from his father rang loudly in his head. The old man passed not long after, leaving Tristan with lands and a title he didn’t want. And now, as the solicitor stated, he needed to marry and produce an heir, or all would be forfeit. He’d have an empty title over a land that barely produced enough to cover expenses. What little came from his father’s shipping investments wasn’t part of the land and would go to his now conniving cousins. As adults, they had bickered and slithered their way to getting Wrenworth investments and the paltry amount of money that remained, leaving Tristan with nothing but a house in shambles, depleted lands and the clothes on his back, unless he married by the end of the Season.

He truly hated England. Being a spy for the crown was a precarious position—a secret from not only the enemy but the army as well. His title of major was limited to paper only, not because he commanded soldiers. His true purpose was known only to the elite privy to such information. Any honors he earned through his mission were not made public, and his fictitious death was attributed to some oblique battle. His superiors held the reins, forbidding anyone to leave yet, if by some chance they did leave, the department never thought they’d return to actually work member. He’d need funds to return to soldiering. Expenses to come home took the bulk of his savings–savings he’d horded as a man abandoned by his family, only to find he had inherited a bankrupt, desolate estate he couldn’t afford. No money meant there was no way back into the military except as a foot soldier. No, he had too much experience for that and men who relied on him.

So he found himself here, at this ball, perusing all the ladies like the majority of men were doing. Of all the giggling and high-pitched squealing debutante, one could be his marchioness. His finger inadvertently tugged at his high starched collar. A wife. Something he wasn’t fit for, nor did he want, but to get the funds to escape, he needed to acquire one. At least separate bedchambers were expected among the upper classes, so no pressure there, like he’d gotten from his last mistress and others before her.

Of course, his memory sparked the other reason for his return—Grifton’s lady. That dying wish, forced out with his last breath, echoed in Tristan’s head.

Promise me you’ll take care of her...

Picked out your next mistress, ole boy?

Tristan refocused and smoothly transitioned with a smirk, his lips curving as he looked to his left. His friend, Harry Giles, Viscount of Martinwood, grinned. Tristan couldn’t help but feel the pang of jealousy. Harry, as the fourth son, would never be titled, his future safe from the responsibilities of title and obligation.

Actually, no. Looking for a real drink though.

Tris, Harry laughed. A ball isn’t exactly Brooks.

Yes, so I’ve discovered. He glanced around the floor again. A vast crowd, all smiles and laughter. None knew the dangers that could lurk in such familiar surroundings—he shook his head. Christ, they’d lock him away before long with those thoughts. He swallowed hard. The smell of the gas lamps mixed with candle wax reminded him of gun grease and...

Ahead of him, through the crowd of silk and wool, Tristan caught a glimpse, a ghostly vision of red-blond hair, dirty with tanning dyes, blood and mud. Piercing blue eyes stared at him, pinning him to the spot. As if to say he’d found Tristan, but the gaze wasn’t one of accusation. Tristan closed his eyes and when he opened them, the image of Grifton was gone. A chill raced down his spine. Would the man haunt him forever?

Tristan St. James! Major, no, Lord Wrenworth, I’d heard you returned! Glad to see ya’, chap!

Standing before Tristan was George Sinclair, a classmate from Eton. One he hadn’t cared for, but at this moment, he’d do anything to erase the image in his head. Lord Northman, it has been ages. A quick glance showed he’d done well—Sinclair’s middle had become padded significantly since schooldays.

Northman snorted, his hand settling on his rounded stomach. Apparently, as one might guess, the lovely Lady Northman hired a superb chef.

Of course he had wed, Tristan thought. While he was away, expanding the British world through conquest, the men he grew up with had married. All to continue the family line and all that balderdash. Mentally dismissing Lady Northman’s chef, Tristan noticed George’s glass didn’t hold bubbly spirits but those of a darker brew.

I’m more interested in where you found the brandy, as he nodded toward the glass.

The rotund man laughed. But of course you are. You’ve never changed Tristan, that’s what I’ve always liked about you. He reached into his coat pocket and produced a rather hefty flask. Not to leave home without it when coming to one of these affairs.

George poured the amber fluid into the empty champagne flutes.

Cheers, gentlemen. Harry tipped his glass to the other two.

The liquor seeped down Tristan’s throat, easing his tension over the vision of Grifton. Instead, he focused on the ball. He wasn’t afraid of the dancing or of the women. He liked women. It was who might be his future wife that ate at him. A title assured better opportunities for him regarding the fairer sex, and it also made him a prime target for any match-wielding mother. And as a gentleman, his age, title, lands and wealth meant success in finding a woman of means, even though deep down inside, he knew he wasn’t husband material. Most lords of the Crown adored being British and supported all Parliament did to bring the world under British rule. Long live the Empire! Except for him. If half of Parliament knew what havoc they brought to the world, perhaps not so many soldiers would die. Though Tristan’s wounds weren’t visible, inside they were intensely raw, painful enough that he doubted any woman could manage his presence for long.

All he needed was an heir. Could he do that? Could he vow to take a lady into his world, get her with child, all to fill a need of the family? Women normally demanded husbands who at least pretended the role of doting mate and many men portrayed that image in public, even with their mistresses housed a short distance away. Heavens, he couldn’t manage a mistress, let alone the idea of a wife...

One thing stood clear in his mind. He couldn’t marry for love. Never love. That pain still stung too deep and he swore not to repeat it. Marry for money. Marry for producing an heir. Not for love.

And then there was his other obligation. The woman he promised to look after. Christ, that’d take time to track her down. Perhaps he should marry her...the thought, though, was appalling. He’d promised to take care of her...the weight of it heavy on him. That and find the man responsible for Grifton’s death.

Tris, come, let me introduce you to my wife and her friends, George said, directing Harry and Tristan along the wall, skirting the dance floor.

Tristan dutifully fell into line with his friends. With another sip of his drink, he determined to set his problems aside. For one night, in the presence of beautiful women, he’d avoid the darkness that always waited for him.

They approached a group of four young ladies, fanning themselves against the rising heat in the ballroom. The ladies all smiled at them as George introduced his wife, the one in the pale blue dress, and she in turned presented them to her friends.

The lady in the pink silk caught Tristan immediately. Her gaze froze when it landed on him and Harry. Her jaw tensed, the move subtle, but he caught it. Her blue eyes glared intently at them, questioning almost, as if, what did they think they were staring at? A lady of headstrong opinions and desires, Tristan guessed correctly. It made him wonder what made her so mad at meeting them. As he bent to kiss the back of her hand, her skin was as cool as her appearance.

He smiled.

The ice queen may be the type of woman who could put up with him. Beautiful enough for him to desire and cold enough that any lingering emotions of attachment didn’t exist. Ideal for the man who wanted nothing from home.

Chapter Two

Evelyn had watched him across the room and, despite rising fear, could not break her gaze. He looked like a Roman god leaning against the pillar, his face carved from marble. A dark-colored marble, not the pale marble so enamored by gentlemen of the ton. Angular cheekbones, square jawline, but his nose was slightly off center as though it had failed to avoid another’s fist. His dark hair wasn’t as long as fashion dictated—in fact, it seemed unusually short from what she could gather. The gaslights, though, showed it wasn’t entirely black but had a gleam to it, as if it had a touch of gold there. Broad shoulders, thick chest from the expanse of his frock coat, he looked huge compared to most. A beast freed of the jungle, she mused.

When he tipped his glass, downing the contents, she watched his throat move up and down in a reflexive movement. It was then she noticed the scar. The marring of a perfect form, slight but noticeable. From his jawline, close to his ear and down to his throat. It was jagged-looking, brutal. It should have repulsed her, yet it only intrigued her more, a minor flaw in the bronze-tone marble.

Eyes fixed on him, she barely heard the buzz of the voices around her, like bees in the springtime. When her Adonis finished his last swallow and lowered his chin, his gaze fell upon her. His emerald eyes appeared to find her among the rest of the crush, but she knew, in reality, he didn’t see her. No man heeded the disgraced daughter of a baron. Well, except those whose eyes lingered longer than seemly on certain areas of her person. This man, though, didn’t. In fact, he leaned back against the pillar, aloof.

She closed her eyes, a knot tightening in her middle. He was stunning in his black pants, cutaway and sapphire waistcoat. Her hands clenched, and a small snap of her fan’s ivory handle sounded before she released her grip. He, along with his compatriots, walked toward her and her friends, his gait fluid and graceful, like a cat approaching its prey. Heartbeat racing, she closed her eyes. Composure was needed. Breathe!

Dear, said George Sinclair, taking his wife’s arm, Look who I have found.

George’s wife, plain Emily Sinclair, smiled. My lords, what a pleasure to see you. Miss Winston and Miss Hurstine, allow me to present Major St. James, now the Marquis of Wrenworth, and Lord Martinwood.

Evelyn grew hot and flushed before a chill took hold. Did Lady Northman just refer to that handsome man with a military rank? A shiver raced down her spine as her breath took flight. Fear and excitement wrestled for control. He might know of Richard. Or, the devil inside her snarled, he could be like the others, those men who haunted her dreams, forcing her to submit. She fought to contain her reaction. Luckily, no one appeared to notice. She forced herself to breathe, her body eventually stilling.

The blonde man grinned as he took Emily’s hand for a light kiss. Always outstanding, Lady Northman.

A snort came from Adonis. My lady, you look well.

Emily’s face blushed red as her husband interceded, Yes, and all is well, considering.

The newcomers looked puzzled. Men. Evelyn happily smiled to herself.

George