Promised to another. Destined for him.
Upon Lord Eric Coleville’s return from the war, The Honorable Sarah Brighton catches his eye. He must have her at any cost, and while their desire is mutual, she is already promised to another—his younger brother. Honor is everything to Eric, but it pales when weighed against losing Sarah. He will use every tactic and strategy at his disposal to steal his brother’s intended bride and make her his instead.
This is a short, steamy Regency romance. It features instalove, instalust, and a swoon-worthy hero intent on claiming his true love.
The ballroom was a sight to behold. The staff had certainly outdone themselves with decorations and refreshments, and those lucky enough to be invited to the soirée had equally gone to every extravagance. Moonlight poured in through the open windows and patio door, bathing everything in a soothing silvery glow. It was exactly as Lord Eric Coleville remembered.
It was utterly ridiculous. Everything seemed so frivolous now, and though he was certain the changes were within him, rather than something different about the ball or the people who attended, it left him vaguely disquieted and more than a little nauseated at the prospect of joining the revelry. Instead, he remained in the shadows at the top of the stairs, his only companion Maxwell, the butler, who remained standing a few feet away from him in respectful silence. The older man would await Eric’s cue before announcing him to the assemblage.
How would they react? He hadn’t moved among the Ton for the last six years, having chosen to spend what little free time he had on other spots on the continent during infrequent breaks from military service. He’d had no compelling reason to return to Collingsford—neither the estate, the townhouse, or the earldom. He speculated he would be a hot topic of gossip among the Ton, and not just the ladies, until the next scandal caught their interest.
He stood hesitating for a moment at the top of the stairs, reminding himself he didn’t have to commit to entering. He could just slip away. He could leave the earldom and his responsibilities as the heir apparent. Having earned his own money and invested wisely during the last six years, he was in a fine position to start over as a gentleman farmer in the colonies, as many of his fellow officers were choosing to do now that they had soundly defeated Napoleon. If he made his presence known, it would be that much more difficult to extricate himself. After six years, the current Earl of Coleville and Eric’s younger brother both probably imagined he had perished during battle. Only his younger brother would care.
Eric hovered, torn between his choices, as his gaze moved among the crowd. At first, he was seeking out his brother, Andrew, hoping the sight of the younger man would give him a true feeling of how he should act. If there was a stirring in his breast at the sight of his sibling, then perhaps it would sway him to stay. If he felt nothing, it would make it easier to leave unannounced.
He thought he saw Andrew, but before he could be certain, a woman slipped into his view instead. He should have continued following the progress of the person he thought was his brother, but his gaze remained glued to the young woman who had caught his attention.
She was turned to face him at three-quarters profile, so he could get a good view of her features. Her complexion was the ideal creamy white that the ladies of the Ton preferred, and it was a marked contrast to the fall of rich brown hair framing her face. The sides were drawn up on top of her head and secured with a diadem while the rest hung around her shoulders in a curling mass. He couldn’t make out her eye color from there, but was suddenly compelled to know it.
He took a step down the stairs, pausing when Maxwell cleared his throat. “Not yet,” he said as he descended the stairs, moving quietly, and sticking to the shadows as much as possible to avoid drawing notice. A moment later, he slipped into the crowd on the dance floor, moving his way through the crush until he was closer to the woman whom his eyes had barely left since finding her.
As he grew nearer, he realized her dance partner was Andrew, and there was definitely warmth in his chest at the sight of his younger brother. Unfortunately, it was quickly obliterated by a wave of jealousy that washed over him so intensely that he could barely breathe. It was an extraordinary sensation, and he’d never had the likes of it before.
There’d been little time for dalliances of any sort while serving as a captain under the Duke of Wellington, and before that, he’d only interacted with well-bred ladies of the Ton. None of them had made a deep impression on him, and Eric had certainly not been tempted to offer for any of their hands. He’d never cared about who they danced with before, so it was a foreign and unwelcome sensation to have anger tighten his body at the sight of his brother dancing with a woman whose name he didn’t even know.
Eric slipped into the shadows near the patio, forcing himself to remain still as he watched Andrew lead the young woman for two sets. Finally, the music reached the end, and Andrew stepped away to put a proper distance between himself and the unknown woman. They conversed quietly for a moment before parting, and he held his breath as he realized she was coming his direction.
It was a fanciful thought, but he wondered if she was feeling the same pull as he was. Of course she wasn’t, because she hadn’t even looked at him yet, but he liked to imagine that as soon as their gazes met, she’d feel it too.
She passed by him without looking in his direction, but he couldn’t fault her for that. He was obscured by shadow. Eric took advantage of the moment when he realized she was heading to the patio for fresh air.
He slipped out of the shadows and followed her outside, remaining a few steps behind until she had taken a spot near the railing. There were other couples mingling on the tri-level patio, along with the grass and garden around it, all carefully monitored by chaperones. He was relieved the young lady in question didn’t appear to have a chaperone, at least not hovering over her like an overprotective mother bear.
He approached her with a deep breath, leaving a few feet between them despite the urge to cover the distance and put his hand on hers where it rested on the rail. “You dance the quadrille beautifully.”
Her eyes widened as she looked at him, and there was a hint of color in her cheeks when she flushed. “Thank you, sir.”
“I would like to dance with you.”
She frowned. “That wouldn’t be proper. We have not been formally introduced, and my dance card is full.”
Eric slid closer, waiting to see if she would put more distance between them. He was gratified when she stayed still, though her nostrils flared and her pupils widened. Was it fear, or was it a physical reaction to his presence? Was she as aware of him as he was of her?
He put his hand on the rail beside hers, allowing his fingers to stroke softly over hers. She gasped in shock, but still didn’t pull away. “Do you always do things that are proper?”
Her dark head inclined, and the curls around her face wafted gently in evening breeze. “It is as I must, sir.”
“You shan’t make an exception for a dance with me?”
She shook her head. “You already risk my reputation speaking to me with such familiarity despite a lack of introductions. And a chaperone is not nearby. You are behaving in a most ungentlemanly manner.” Her words were repressive, but there was a sparkle in her eyes—bright blue—that indicated she wasn’t as offended as she appeared to be. Perhaps she was even a little excited by his daring.
He reached for her hand, the blood pounding through his veins at the first touch of her palm against his. He brought her hand to his mouth and brushed his lips over the fingers. It was an acceptable greeting for acquaintances, but not strangers. He held himself in check, wanting to do far more than kiss her gloved fingers.
She gasped, and the color in her cheeks bloomed fiercely. She tugged at his hand, trying to free hers, but it appeared to be only a half-hearted effort. “Sir, you shall ruin me.”
He lifted his head, forcing himself to release his hold on her hand. “Should that occur, I will happily marry you to preserve your reputation.”
Her lips twitched. “A life sentence of marriage seems hardly just for a few moments of conversation, sir.”
He laughed softly. “It’s a price I would gladly pay, my dear.”
She shook her head, taking a step away from him. “It matters not. I’m already unofficially promised to another.”
A feeling akin to rage spread through him, and he had to ball his hands into fists to keep from uttering an aggressive denial. What was the matter with him? He never reacted this way to anything, and certainly not to a woman. Even in battle, he remained cool and levelheaded, thinking things through and strategizing rather than responding based on raw emotion.
“Has your father signed the contracts with this man?”
She licked her lips, her pink tongue trailing across the lower one in an alluring fashion. “Not as yet, sir, but that is the next step.”
He shook his head. “Unofficial is almost the same as nonexistent.”
She snapped open the fan hanging by a ribbon from her wrist and fanned herself, though she couldn’t actually be hot standing in the slightly cool breeze of the late-summer air. “You go too far. Good evening.” She drew herself up, clearly intent on moving past him.
Eric acted on instinct when he stuck out his arm, keeping her from moving. His fingers grazed her hip, and it took all of his will power not to curl his hand against her tender flesh and pull her into his arms for a deep embrace. “I do not wish to see you dance with other men.”
She gave him a haughty glare, and her tone bristled with outrage. “Then I suggest you look away, sir.” She skirted around his arm, stalking away from him without looking back.
He was equal parts displeased and amused. The displeasure came from knowing he hadn’t gotten through to her, and he hadn’t persuaded her to even so much as dance with him. He hadn’t even acquired her name, he realized with a start.
The amusement came from her feisty response. He enjoyed a woman who could hold her own, rather than a simpering chit straight from the schoolroom. Judging from her appearance, he didn’t think the lady was much past schoolroom age, and this was likely no more than her second or third season, but she was clearly beyond the first bloom of submissive shyness often displayed by girls in their first season.
Reluctantly, he returned to the ballroom and made his way up the stairs, averting his face whenever he passed near someone else. Once on the second floor, he moved toward Maxwell, who remained in much the same position he’d occupied a few minutes before. Pitching his voice low, though there was no one nearby to overhear, he discreetly pointed to the woman to whom he had just spoken, slightly relieved to see she was dancing with a different gentleman, though he didn’t like the sight any more than he had when it was her with Andrew. “Who is that woman?”
Maxwell stared for half a second before looking at him. “That is The Honorable Miss Sarah Brighton, daughter of Viscount Crenshaw.”
She was the daughter of a viscount, and if he was determined to win her, that meant he couldn’t walk away from the earldom that awaited him. His decision was clarified, and he nodded to the butler. “I am ready to be announced.” He lifted a hand. “But first, do you know the identity of the man trying to win Miss Sarah Brighton’s hand?”
Maxwell looked briefly troubled. “It has not been officially announced, of course, my lord, but the man is your brother.”
His mind spun for a moment, and his world felt like it tilted on its axis. He was freshly back from war, hadn’t seen his sibling in six years, and was preparing to steal his brother’s proposed affianced. It was a dishonorable course of action, and he hesitated for a moment, poised on the edge of turning away and joining his friends on the voyage to America.
His gaze moved once more to Miss Sarah, almost involuntarily on his part, and as he looked at her, his fate was sealed. She belonged with him, and he would have her no matter the cost.
Clearing his throat, he looked at Maxwell. “Now you may announce me.”
Eric moved to the staircase as Maxwell raised his voice to be heard over the music. “Lord Eric Coleville, Earl of Noblesse.”
As he had anticipated, the room fell silent for a moment, and all gazes moved to him. Eric struggled not to betray any of the anxiety spiraling through him as he walked down the stairs with a confident gait. He allowed himself a brief glance at Sarah, before his gaze moved to find the current Earl of Collingsford. He moved closer to him, watching the crowd part with a touch of amusement as they scurried out of his way. He paused before the older man, bending his head in respectful fashion. “Hello, Father. It has been a long time.”
The old man’s face turned an alarming shade of purple, and the cup in his hand fell to the floor with the sound of shattering glass. He let out a choked sound as he placed a hand on his heart, reeling backward. Eric reached out automatically, offering support to keep the old man from falling, but in his stubbornness, the senior Andrew Coleville shoved away, ending up sprawling on the marble floor of the ballroom.
Andrew the Younger rushed over, and he knelt beside his father. “Maxwell, get Father to his room. Send one of the footmen for the physician.”
In the bustle, Eric lost sight of Sarah as the rest of the attendees moved from the ballroom, clearing the way for the staff. She was probably somewhere in the crush, but he couldn’t find her, and there was no time to seek her out. Instead, he found himself following behind the senior Earl and his younger brother.
He and Andrew took up position outside their father’s bedchambers until the staff had settled him. When Maxwell appeared at the doorway, Andrew stepped forward, but paused when the older man lifted a hand. “The Earl would like to speak with Lord Coleville first, my lord.”
Andrew nodded tersely, clapping Eric on the shoulder as he passed. “It is good to have you home, brother, despite these circumstances.”
The words meant a great deal to Eric as he entered the bedchamber of the Earl of Collingsford. He was the heir apparent, and he carried his father’s lesser title as a courtesy, but those were the only things he had from the Earl. The unspoken awareness remained between them for a moment, both recalling the last night they had seen each other.
It had been much like this, only Eliza had lain on the bed instead. She had taken ill unexpectedly, and Andrew had been away at school, so he hadn’t been there for her final hours. It had been just the elder Andrew and Eric who sat beside Eliza, waiting to see if she would recover or pass.
She had briefly regained consciousness, and her confession had torn apart Eric’s world. When she had admitted to a dalliance early in her marriage with the new husband of her friend, the Earl had clearly been devastated. He was much older than Eliza, and she had pointed out to him that was why she had originally indulged in the affair.
She hadn’t loved her husband at that point, but had assured Andrew that she had quickly come to love him. By the time she had done so, she was already expecting the bastard child of Lord Draven, so she had passed Eric off as the Earl’s heir apparent. When Andrew had been born a few years later, she’d given him the elder’s name, though he would not inherit the title.
While Eric had never been particularly close to the man he had thought was his father, because they were so dissimilar and always butting heads, the words had shattered him and ravaged the older man. Andrew the Elder had sat quietly as Eliza breathed her last, and then he looked at Eric with such deep hatred that it still sent a chill down his spine six years later to recall the expression and the tone when the old man had told him, “Get out.”
He had done so, collecting his things and clearing out of the home that very night. With few options, he’d enlisted in the cavalry, staying there until they had finally defeated Napoleon for the second time.
There was no softening in the old man’s features, and his tone was still harsh. “I’d hoped you were dead, boy.”
Eric sighed. “Sorry to disappoint you again, Father…” He trailed off. “My Lord.”
“I wanted to disinherit you. I would have had a good case for it too, but that would’ve meant annulling my marriage to Eliza. That would have left Andrew illegitimate, and no heir to the earldom at all.”
Eric nodded. “I was rather surprised that you didn’t, but had gleaned for myself why it was impossible.”
“You shall inherit the earldom, but you’ll find I left a hefty portion in trust for your brother.”
“I am happy to hear it, Lord Collingsford.” It felt strange to call the other man by his formal title, but equally strange to attempt something as intimate as the word father. “I would never do anything to harm Andrew.”
The older man turned pale, and he closed his eyes for a moment. “I do believe that.” He opened them again a moment later. “You come from dishonorable stock, and you’re a bastard, but I do believe you love your brother, and you shall do right by him. That was the only reason I could allow myself to keep you as my heir.”
He nodded, and they reached a mutual unspoken arrangement. “Do you believe you are dying now?”
Before he could answer, Andrew the Elder started coughing. “I have been dying for months, boy. Spare me your presence for my last hours and send in your brother.”
Eric kept any hint of hurt from his expression as he nodded. “Of course. I shall bid you goodbye now then.”
The Earl didn’t bother to speak to him, and Eric didn’t look back as he slipped from the bedchamber in time to find the physician arriving and Andrew standing nearby. He looked to his younger brother. “He would like you to be with him for the last.” He turned his attention to the physician. “The Earl says he’s dying?”
The physician looked regretful. “Yes, my lord.”
Andrew bristled, expressing shock and outrage that no one had bothered to tell him of his father’s deteriorating health. Eric moved away from them, leaving the physician and the Earl to soothe Andrew’s concerns.
He didn’t look back, and though there was lingering regret at the way things had ended with the man he’d believed was his father, time had already healed the breach left by learning the truth. Six years without the other man in his life, preceded by most of his childhood and adulthood before that filled with his supposed father’s indifference, left him with nothing more than a vague ache of regret.
That ache only intensified slightly a few hours later when Maxwell came to deliver the news that the Earl had departed the world. He murmured his thanks and shut the door before moving across the room to the writing desk. He pulled out a fresh parchment and quill, but stared at the blank piece of paper as he tried to decide what he should do first.
He would not officially become the Earl of Collingsford until he appeared at the House of Lords and paid the fee for inheriting, though he would be called by the title from now on. There were many duties to which he much must attend, and he would have to quickly bring himself up to speed with his father’s business endeavors, but all he could focus on was the face in the back of his mind.
When the quill moved over the page, it wasn’t to list what must be done, or even to write formal correspondences announcing his father’s death. Instead, the image of Miss Sarah Brighton soon appeared in ink, rendered deftly to a very lifelike representation of her. He stared at the face for a long time, trying to compose his thoughts and determine his next course of action. Whatever else happened, he was determined to claim Miss Sarah Brighton as his own.