Why Earls Fall in Love

By: Manda Collins

Prologue





“Put the knife down, your grace,” Mrs. Georgina Mowbray said firmly, infusing every bit of military command she’d ever heard during her time following the drum into her voice.

She knew how absurd it was to try reasoning with a man who was clearly at the end of his rope—especially one like the Duke of Ormond who had undoubtedly been granted his every wish from childhood. Even so, she did try reason, hoping that the drunk, exhausted husband of her dear friend Perdita would not go through with his threat. “Killing your wife will not make you feel any better.”

The only sign that Perdita felt genuine terror was the visible flutter of her pulse, only a hairsbreadth from the glinting blade at her throat.

Georgina, Perdita, and the young duchess’s sister, Lady Isabella Wharton, had hoped to convince the duke—who was, admittedly, not the most reasonable of men—to allow his wife to leave his household and establish her own. Since Ormond spent most of his time indulging his love for hard living in places other than the ducal mansion in Mayfair, the ladies had hoped he’d not see the request for what it was—the first step in an attempt to disengage Perdita completely from her brute of a husband.

Unfortunately they’d allowed their hopes to overreach their common sense.

Of course Ormond had responded badly to their request, Georgie reflected, grateful to feel the weight of her small pistol through the fabric of her reticule. The ladies had been foolish beyond belief to think the man who had beaten his wife for wearing the wrong gown to a dinner party would possibly behave in a rational manner.

His next words only confirmed it. “She wouldn’t be able to leave me if she was dead,” the duke slurred. His lips twisted with resentment. “She was fine before the two of you got hold of her with your lies about me.”

Georgina exchanged a speaking look with Isabella. Both women were glad that Ormond had no suspicions that Perdita herself had been the one to broach the subject to them, rather than the other way around. After so many years of enduring Ormond’s cruelties, this week, Perdita had reached the point at which she no longer cared what her husband would do to retaliate against her for leaving. She only knew, she’d told her sister and Georgie, that if she did not leave now, she was unlikely to live for much longer.

If this was how Ormond behaved when he suspected Perdita’s friends of luring her away, Georgie cringed to imagine what his response might be should he discover the notion had been his wife’s own.

She was grateful for her own position firmly in the middle class. She’d been somewhat self-conscious when the tonnish sisters had befriended her at a charity group’s meeting, but once the three had discussed their similar situations—both Isabella and Georgie were widowed from men who had been quick to anger and free with their fists, while Perdita was still married to such a man—they’d formed an alliance. Since she’d been unable to confide in the friends she’d had among the other military wives who followed the drum, Georgina was enjoying, for the first time in her adult life, the relief of knowing that someone else in the world understood just what her life with her husband had been like.

Now, of course, Georgie realized that though her own situation had been difficult to endure, at least her husband hadn’t been brought up to believe that his every decision was right and proper and that he could do whatever the bloody hell he liked. There was something to be said for the discipline of the military, which at least had meant that while her husband was doing his duty for king and country, he would not be focused on humiliating her. Poor Perdita never knew when and where the duke would strike.

“I would never leave you, darling,” Perdita said, her calm demeanor belied by the slight hitch in her breath as Ormond’s shaking hand pressed the blade ever closer. “You know I love you.”

Her lips tightening, Georgie knew that her friend would not be able to maintain her placid pose for much longer. Catching Isabella’s eye again, she glanced down at her left hand, curling all but her index finger inward, and lifting her thumb, making the shape of a gun. She watched Isabella’s eyes widen as she realized what Georgie was saying.

The sisters had been slightly appalled when Georgina informed them of her habit of carrying the small pistol in her reticule, but once Georgie explained that she’d done so for her own protection in the peninsula, and it had simply become habit, the two women had reluctantly agreed that there were some occasions when having a pistol might be beneficial for a lady traveling alone in London.

Now, Georgie was grateful to her father, who’d insisted upon buying it for her when she married. Little had she suspected she’d be using it to protect a friend instead of herself. Though at this point, she was simply grateful to have it.

Nodding slightly at Georgie, Isabella began to speak—perhaps, it dawned on Georgie, to distract the duke while Georgie removed the pistol from her reticule.

“Ormond,” she heard her friend say boldly, then perhaps realizing she sounded a bit too imperious, softened her tone. “Gervase,” Isabella said, switching to the duke’s Christian name, “we aren’t here to take Perdita away from you. We simply wish for you to perhaps be a bit gentler with her.”

“Why?” the duke demanded petulantly, his bloodshot eyes bright with suspicion. “She’s not gentle with me. She scratched my face earlier. Damn her.” He gripped Perdita tighter, and she whimpered.

Even as she closed her hand over the butt of the pistol, Georgina did not look away from the tableau before her. She did not wish to draw the duke’s attention to her in any possible way. She could see the nail marks on his face, but she was not moved to any sort of pity for the duke. He had been trying to force himself upon his wife when she’d defended herself with her nails. It was hardly punishment at all for such a heinous act, Georgie reflected grimly, slipping her index finger onto the trigger.

Clearly disturbed by Ormond’s growing unrest, Isabella spoke again. Georgie hoped he would keep his attention on her friend while she, herself, gripped the pistol against her side, still not letting the reticule drop from around it, needing the element of surprise that would come when she pulled the trigger. The way he held Perdita just now, it would be impossible to hit the duke without injuring Perdita in the process.

As if reading her friend’s mind, Isabella spoke up, her tone imperious now as she addressed her brother-in-law. “You should be gentle with her because she might be carrying the next Duke of Ormond.” Perdita hadn’t said anything of the sort to either Georgie or her sister, but Ormond had no way of knowing that.