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       Desperate Measures (A Regency Short Story), p.1

           Candice Hern
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Desperate Measures (A Regency Short Story)


  DESPERATE MEASURES

  by Candice Hern

  A Regency Short Story

  Desperate Measures

  A Regency Short Story

  Originally published in The Mammoth Book of Regency Romance

  Copyright 2011 by Candice Hern

  * * *

  All rights reserved. No part of this text may be used or reproduced, downloaded, transmitted, or decompiled in any manner whatsoever, whether electronic or mechanical, without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the internet or any other means without the permission of the author is illegal. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.

  * * *

  This is a work of fiction. With the exception of real historical figures and events that may be mentioned, all names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  For further information, email

  [email protected]

  Cover art: Detail of "Parisian Public Promenade Dress" from La Belle Assemblée, November 1816. Collection of the author

  DESPERATE MEASURES

  She was going to commit murder. If that scoundrel Philip Hartwell did not show up soon, Lydia Bettridge was going to track him down and rip his heart out. After all, this whole scheme was his idea. If he hadn't suggested it in the first place, and if he and her brother Daniel had not gleefully concocted the plan, she would not now be waiting on pins and needles to learn whether or not it would work.

  Or perhaps all that gleefulness had been at her expense. Had they been making a game of her, playing on her disappointment, poking fun at her unrequited affections?

  By God, she would rip out both their hearts. With a rusty blade.

  Lydia scanned the ballroom again, maintaining as casual an air as possible as she sought out Philip's bright red hair among the crowd milling about in groups, waiting for the first set to begin. She was just about to stomp her foot in frustration when she saw him. Not Philip, but … him. Dear heaven, it was Geoffrey Danforth, the secret object of her scheme, and he was at that very moment making his way across the room directly toward her.

  Her belly seized up in a knot of panic. What was she to do now? And where the devil was Philip?

  "Here comes Danforth, my dear," her mother said in hushed tones. "And he is smiling at you and looking exceedingly handsome in that gold waistcoat. The color sets off his hair nicely, don't you think? I hope you will not reject him like all the others. I suspect poor Philip must be delayed. You would certainly be forgiven if you did not wait for him any longer."

  Lydia had claimed a prior commitment for the opening set when asked to dance by three other perfectly suitable gentlemen, causing her mother to cluck and twitter with vexation. She was not pleased that Lydia had promised to be led out for one of the most important dances of the evening by her brother's best friend, who no had marital intentions toward Lydia or anyone else, and for whom Lydia had no more than a sisterly affection. "Such a waste," her mother had said more than once.

  And here came Geoffrey Danforth, with his flashing blue eyes and a smile to make a girl weak in the knees. Oh dear.

  He stood before them and sketched an elegant bow. "Mrs. Bettridge. Miss Lydia. You are both looking very fine this evening." His eyes swept over Lydia, hopefully admiring her new dress, which was cut a bit more daringly in the bodice than her usual attire. It had been a part of the plan, of course, to look as dashing as possible.

  His gaze turned to her mother. "The yellow plumes are quite fetching, Mrs. B. All the other ladies here must be seething with envy."

  Her mother giggled behind her fan and muttered something about a shameless flatterer. Geoffrey turned to Lydia and said, "I believe this is our dance."

  What?

  "I beg your pardon?" She could have bitten off her tongue. Philip Hartwell was obviously not coming so their plan had to be scrapped. And yet here was Geoffrey, the object of her every dream and heart's desire, asking her to dance – and she demurred. Why did she not simply take his arm and be quiet?

  He grinned, an endearing lopsided grin that was somehow both boyish and rakish at the same time, and had set her heart aflutter since she was fifteen. "Hartwell is detained indefinitely and asked me to take his place." Turning his head so her mother couldn't see, he winked at her.

  Dear God, did he mean what she thought he meant? Was he to take Philip's place in more than just the dance? No, surely not. Philip would not be so heartless, would he? But then, he didn't know.

  Geoffrey took her hand and placed it on his arm. With a little tug – she was almost rooted to the spot, barely able to think, much less move, and so needed that bit of physical encouragement – he gently led her to the center of the floor where sets were forming. "Don't worry, Lydia." He kept his voice low so others would not overhear. Deep and soft as butter, it was a voice that always made her want to close her eyes and allow it to melt all over her. "I know you must be disappointed, but I will do my best. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, but I daresay I can do a better job of it than old Hartwell." He winked again, and her feet stopped working properly.

  He placed his other hand firmly over hers and maneuvered her skillfully across the floor without further incident. Surely he had noticed her falter, though he did not mention it. While they waited for the music to begin, he bent his head near hers and said, "Will you trust me to do the job properly?"

  She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and decided to feign ignorance. "I have no idea what you mean." Her voice sounded surprisingly steady, and she was rather proud of herself.

  He smiled and gave her a little nudge with his shoulder. "No need to be coy, my girl. Hartwell told all. Had to, of course, since I was to take his place. But quite frankly, Lydia, I was shocked to learn that you believed such a stratagem was necessary."

  "Oh dear. I suppose it does seem rather foolish." More foolish than he would ever know.

  "Indeed it does. I cannot imagine you have to work so hard to make some worthless chap take notice of you."

  "Worthless? You do not even know who he is."

  "Then tell me. It will make this easier if I know the object of this game."

  "No, I'd rather not tell who he is." She'd rather die.

  "It doesn't matter. I know who he is."

  Panic prickled the back of her neck. "You do not. You can't know."

  "I can and I do. He is an undeserving moron, that's who he is. If he needs encouragement to notice your beauty, your charm, your wit, then he is certainly not worthy of you."

  His words sent a powerful yearning rushing through her veins. Did he mean it, truly mean it, or was he simply using flattery to squirm out of taking part in this fool's errand?

  "Does the fellow show an interest in some other young woman perhaps?"

  "No one in particular, as far as I know."

  "And he pays you no notice whatsoever?"

  She shrugged. "Very little. Or, at least not in … in that way."

  It wasn't that he didn’t notice her, or that he ignored her. No, he was well-acquainted with her. They had known each other for years as he was one of Daniel's closest friends. That was, perhaps, the problem. He treated her just as Daniel did, as a sister. O
r worse. She sometimes wondered if he was even aware that she was female. He never looked at her as certain other gentlemen did, with a spark of interest in his eye, or the slightest hint of desire.

  Yet, whenever she saw him, for her it was all spark and desire. Among her brother's friends, Geoffrey was the only who made her so thoroughly aware of his … maleness. She never much noticed how other men's pantaloons stretched taut across a well-muscled thigh, or the impressive set of shoulders beneath their tight-fitting coats. But she had been noticing such things about Geoffrey for several years. The sight of him had been making her warm all over since long before she understood what it meant.

  "Hmm." His brow furrowed as he studied her. "And so I am to make this chap jealous?"

  No sense in denying what he already knew. Maybe there was still hope for this scheme after all, even if it had been turned topsy-turvy. "That is what Philip and Daniel suggested, and Philip agreed to do it. They said that nothing piques a man's interest in a young lady like seeing another man shower his attentions on her, especially if that man is generally known for avoiding such things, for keeping himself above any potential entanglement." She tried to sound blasé but her cheeks flushed with warmth.

  "Well, then, I am your man." He slapped a hand against his chest. "I
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