Excerpt: From London with Love
Book 3: Rebellious Brides
For the second time in five years, Hamilton Sparrow ruined Emilia St. George’s wedding day.
By all outward appearances, the occasion was proceeding as expected. St. George’s Church Hanover Square was filled almost to the galleries with spectators eager to witness the grand society wedding of an untitled heiress to the much-admired grandson of a duke, a promising diplomat who charmed everyone he met from the boulevards of Paris to the bazaars of Casablanca.
Emilia stared down the long church aisle, past the grand Corinthian columns, until her gaze found the elegant man to whom she would soon be bound for the rest of her natural life. Her intended, the Honorable Edmund Worsely, stood upright by the altar, his lithe form framed by the soaring stained-glass windows behind him.
But it was the image of another man that flashed before her, of another groom, with laughing blue eyes and sharp-edged features, who always made her insides feel like a warm Christmas pudding. The old pain throbbed in her chest again. I’m sorry, Emilia, he’d said the morning they were to be wed, but I cannot marry you. And she’d pretended to understand even as her heart shrank, withering until it was nothing but a shriveled black currant inside her chest.
Blast Hamilton Sparrow! He wasn’t even present, and yet he was still managing to ruin her wedding all over again. The specter of the man seemed to hover above, a lone devilish presence among the angelic spirits floating high up in the church rafters.
She exhaled, loud and sharp, determined to shove Sparrow’s memory out of her mind and into the past so she could truly focus on her husband-to-be. Edmund looked fearsomely dignified in pearl gray topped with a navy tailcoat, posture impeccable as always, his expression suitably serious for the auspicious occasion.
Her stomach turned over.
You can do this. The affirming chant repeated over and over in her head. She told herself the uneasiness slithering through her gut was due to normal wedding-day nerves and nothing more. All brides must have them.
It was true that, at times, Edmund did seem to forget that she existed, not willfully or maliciously, of course, but almost as though she was an afterthought. But in other instances, he gave her his full focus, regaling her with stories of travel and discovery, mesmerizing her with the promise of the adventures they would soon share.
Emilia might not love Edmund, but she was enchanted by the life he could offer her. This alliance would give her everything she wanted: the chance to escape her humdrum country existence, to keep her promise to Grandpapa, to study and copy the greatest artworks ever created. To avoid the prospect of a long and lonely spinsterhood.
She stretched her neck from side to side, attempting to be discreet as she tried to ease the tension knotted there. She ran a hand along the décolletage of the white satin gown her mother had selected for her. The fine Belgian lace trim was itchy, the irritation causing her fair skin to become splotchy and uneven. To make matters worse, the lace lining of her matching oversized bonnetwhich was intended to hide the ridiculous shade of her hair—rubbed uncomfortably against the nape of her neck.
Edmund and the guests had yet to note her arrival, because she stood alone in the shadows of the vestibule. Her excited mother and chattering cousins had just left her to slip inside and take their seats before the ceremony began.
It was time.
She drew a fortifying breath and stepped forward on the black-and-white marble floor toward where her father stood a few feet away, waiting to escort her down the aisle to her future as Mrs. Edmund Worsely, to life as a woman married to man she respected and admired, but did not love.
“Emilia.” The tone was low, masculine.
Chills shot down her back. She knew that voice. It had invaded her dreams for the past five years. But it couldn’t be. Sparrow wasn’t even in London. Last she’d heard, he was in Paris romancing his tarty mistress.
She peered into the shadows, fearful that wedding-day nerves had morphed into hallucinations. “Sparrow?”
“Come here.” The urgent words vibrated through her. “Now.”
It was him. Her temper flashed. Who was he to order her about? “In case you hadn’t noticed,” she snapped, “I’m a bit occupied at the moment.”
He stepped forward, emerging from the shadows. When the light illuminated his face, her heart dropped, and then soared, all at the same time. He was as beautiful as she remembered. His coal black hair highlighted an impossibly blue gaze and emphasized the precise cut of his cheekbones. A perfectly tailored deep blue tailcoat brought out the compelling shade of those eyes.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“You mustn’t go through with it.” His gaze was hard and intense, absent the humor that usually sparkled there. “I cannot allow it.”
Fool that she was, hope—warm and radiant—welled in her chest like a rose flowering in the sun. He meant to stop her wedding. Did he intend to finally claim her for himself?
“Whatever do you mean?” She held her breath and her heart beat faster as she waited for his answer.
“This is no time to talk.” He spoke brusquely. “Come.”
As she stared at his ungloved hand—powerful and long fingered with square blunt nails—long-simmering outrage, first kindled on their disastrous wedding day five years before, began to burn in her lungs. “Go away. I’m not about to let you ruin another wedding for me.”
A shadow passed over his eyes. “Emilia.”
The church organ began to play, its majestic strains reverberating off the church’s plastered walls. She didn’t recognize the musical piece. Edmund had chosen it. “There isn’t much time.” His probing gaze landed on the space behind her as if assessing something. “We have to get you out of here.”
She adjusted her giant bonnet. “The only place I am going is down the aisle to marry my betrothed.”
He did not reply. At least not with words. He simply stepped forward, scooped her off her feet, and tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
Sparrow hadn’t meant to ruin her wedding day.
He’d come as a guest, invited by her father. But there was nothing to be done for it. The moment he spied Pierce Graves among the eager spectators outside the church waiting for a glimpse of the wedding couple, he’d known something was amiss. He could think of no good reason for the hired killer to attend a Mayfair society wedding.
A cheer had gone up within the crowd when Emilia emerged from her carriage minutes earlier, a mammoth bonnet shielding her face. The way Graves’s unwavering gaze tracked the bride until she entered St. George’s made Sparrow’s blood ice. He’d worked with Graves before, in another life, and recognized all of the signs of a professional planning his next kill. But why Emilia? He’d ponder that later, after he got her to safety.
“Put me down, you cretin!” Hanging upside down over his shoulder, Emilia wiggled her bottom, the slippery satin of her gown making it deuced difficult to keep a firm grasp on her.
Walking in long, purposeful strides, he slapped her bum and hissed, “Be still before I drop you on your head.”
“Ouch!” she yelped. “One of us has clearly already been dropped on his head.” She squirmed and kicked even more vigorously. To keep from losing his grip on her, he clamped a hand hard over her hips, which were fuller and far more womanly than he would have thought. The Emilia he remembered had been a narrow slip of a girl. “I swear, if you don’t put me down I shall bite you.”
Considering the hot outrage vibrating from her, he wouldn’t put it past her to take a chunk out of his arse, especially given that her face wasn’t far removed from his nether regions.
“What happened to you?” he asked her, at the same time sensing Graves coming up behind them. “You used to be quiet and biddable.” As he spoke, he swung around to plant Graves a facer. Caught unawares, the other man collapsed with a grunt, but Sparrow knew Graves well enough to know he wouldn’t stay down for long.
“What did you do?” Emilia shrieked, twisting her body for a glimpse of the injured man. “You hit him!”
“Indeed I did.” To make sure Graves would stay down, Sparrow slammed the point of his shiny Hoby boot into the man’s gut. Graves crumpled on the stone floor.
“What is wrong with you?” Emilia’s voice rose in alarm as she struggled to get down, kicking her legs below where his forearm gripped her across the knees. “Why are you accosting my guests?”
“I doubt you would have appreciated the gift he had in mind.” He scanned the vestibule for the quickest escape. Going out the front with the bride slung over his shoulder wouldn’t do. Spotting a door at the west end of the corridor, he ran toward it, his heart laboring hard under the burden he carried. Emilia had more meat on her than he recalled.
He reached the door and tried the latch, breathing a sigh of relief to find it unlocked. Pushing it open, he stepped inside, closing and bolting the door behind him before scanning the space. It was a meeting room of sorts, containing an oak table flanked by several ladder-backed chairs. Sparrow eyed the lone stained-glass window on the opposite wall.
“Put me down, you oaf.” Emilia stiffened her body in an attempt to get him to lose his grip.
With a stifled curse, he bent forward and set her down on her feet. “Don’t move,” he warned.
She stared at him with big, incredulous green eyes, their shade as intense as the brilliant jade necklace he’d bought Marie from Russia. The unwelcome memory of his former mistress burned through his innards like acid. Emilia pivoted and tried to unbolt the door, prompting recollections of the past to fly out of his mind.
He slammed a palm hard against the wood, preventing her from opening it. “What are you doing?”
“What am I doing?” She spun around, her eyes flashing, her cheeks coloring beneath the faint freckles fanning out from the bridge of her nose. “What am I doing? I’m trying to get married you big fat idiot!”
“There is no call for a lady to use such language,” he said absentmindedly, his real focus on the window.
She struggled to pull the door open. “There is when the man who ruined my life is back to do it again.”
He kept a firm hand against the door. “Ruined your life?” But he hardly registered the words. His preoccupation was getting her safely out of the church. Catching her hand, he moved toward the window, dragging her with him.
Her white satin slippers skidded along the stone floor as she tried to hold her ground. “Let me go,” she wailed. “What is wrong with you? I’m meant to be getting married today.”
“Shield your face and stay behind me.” Holding firmly onto her hand, he lifted a chair and hurled it against the window, shattering the glass.
She jumped, startled by the action. “You’re mad.” She went very still, searching his face as though really seeing him for the first time. He registered the fear and alarm in her eyes. “Who breaks windows in a church?”
He placed both hands firmly on her shoulders and looked her straight in the eyes. “Emilia, do not be afraid.” He spoke in gentle but resolute tones. “I have no desire to alarm you, but I must keep you safe.”
Her wary gaze held his. “Safe from what?”
“There is a hired killer out there.”
For a moment she just stared at him, digesting his words. Her face looked remarkably small surrounded by the huge lacey rim of her hideous bonnet. “A hired killer.”
He gave a sharp nod, impressed by her calmness. “Exactly.” Shrugging out of his tailcoat, he bunched it up and wrapped it around his fist, using it as a muffler to protect his hand as he punched away what little glass was left in the window
“A hired killer here,” she said from behind him. “At my wedding. At St. George’s. In Mayfair.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “Yes, and so we must be away from here posthaste.”
“Are the magical fairies here, too?” A disbelieving snort escaped her lips. “Thank you for your concern, but I think I’ll take my chances.” She marched toward the door.
“Damnation!” Frustration pulsed through him. “We don’t have time for childish tantrums.” He could waste these few precious moments arguing with her, or he could save her life, whether she liked it or not. Without another word, he picked her up, walked over to the window, and chucked her out.