As Washington burns, Callista Brooke is trapped in the battle between her native England and her adopted homeland. She is on the verge of losing everything, including her life, when a handsome Englishman cuts through the violent crowd to claim that she is his. Callie falls into her protector’s arms, recognizing that he is no stranger, but the boy she’d once loved, a lifetime ago.
Lord George Gordon Audley had been Callie’s best friend, and it was to Gordon she turned in desperation to avoid a loathsome arranged marriage. But the repercussions of his gallant attempt to rescue her sent Callie packing to Jamaica, and Gordon on a one way trip to the penal colony of Australia.
Against all odds, Gordon survived. Finding Callie is like reclaiming his tarnished soul, and once again he vows to do whatever is necessary to protect her and those she loves. But the innocent friendship they shared as children has become a dangerous passion that may save or destroy them when they challenge the aristocratic society that exiled them both . . .
“Putney’s endearing characters and warm-hearted stories never fail to inspire and delight.”—Sabrina Jeffries
Lord George Gordon Richard Augustus Audley, third and most worthless son of the Marquess of Kingston, snapped awake at the hissing voice outside his open bedroom window. Callie? She wasn't supposed to be home from school for another week. He frowned; it had to be her. Only two people had ever called him Richard, and she was the only one who might be climbing up the thick vines below his window.
In the warm night he wore only his drawers. Though he and Callie had been best friends since they were in the nursery, they weren't on terms of semi-nudity, so he grabbed his robe and tied the sash as he swung from the bed.
He leaned out the casement and looked down into the rustling vines. In the light of a full moon, the heart-shaped face and shining red-blond hair were unmistakable. But what the devil was the Honorable Catherine Callista Brooke doing scrambling up to his room in the middle of the night?
"Callie, you're insane!" he said affectionately as he leaned out and extended a hand to help her up and over the sill. "If I'd known you were home from school, I could have called tomorrow in a perfectly civilized manner."
Her hand clamped onto his and she scrambled over the sill and into his room. She was dressed as a boy, which was sensible for climbing vine-covered walls.
He was about to say more when the moonlight revealed shining streaks on her face. Callie was crying? She never cried. She had nerves of Damascus steel. "What's wrong, Callie?" he asked sharply.
"Everything!" she replied in a raw voice.
She was shaking, so he instinctively wrapped comforting arms around her. He must have grown in the last months of school because she seemed smaller as she buried her face against his shoulder. "Steady, catkin," he said quietly as he patted her back. "We've been in and out of enough trouble to know how to fix problems."
"Not this kind of problem." She took a deep breath and stepped back, though she kept hold of his arms as if not trusting her balance.
Moonlight touched her face, revealing a dark mark on her left cheek. Swearing, he skimmed a gentle finger tip over the bruise. "Your father has been beating you again."
Callie shrugged. "I'm used to that, being the most disobedient, rebellious, devil-touched daughter in England, as he informs me regularly. But this time…" Her voice broke before she continued, "It's much worse. He's going to marry me to some horrible old planter from the West Indies!"
"Good God, how has that come about?" Gordon steered her to a chair, then retrieved his hidden flask of forbidden brandy. He poured a small measure into a glass and added an equal amount of water before handing it over. "How would a planter from the Indies even know you exist?"
"He's some kind of distant connection of my father. A widower." She sipped at the watered brandy, coughed, sipped some more. "He called at Rush Hall to discuss business, saw me, and offered marriage because I'm so beautiful!" She almost spat the words out.
"Beautiful?" Gordon blinked at the thought. She was--Callie. Pretty enough with that sunset red-gold hair, and she was athletic and graceful as well. An old man might consider the hair and Callie's vibrant good spirits enough to be beauty. "You're only sixteen, so surely that means a long betrothal."
She shook her head violently. "He wants to marry immediately, before he returns to the Indies! He's staying at the Hall now. As soon as my father said he could have me and good riddance, the fellow sent to London for a special license. It came today. My father told me this evening that I'll be married the day after tomorrow."
"He can't force you to marry a stranger!" Gordon said, aghast. "Just keep saying no. It won't be easy, but you're practiced at disobedience."
She shook her head, shaking again. "If I don't obey, I'm afraid he'll take his anger out on my sisters."
Damnably, she was probably right. Callie's sisters were vulnerable, and her father was quite capable of bullying or hurting them to insure Callie's cooperation. Gordon wrapped an arm around her shoulders, murmuring soft comforting words until she pulled away with a smile that almost worked. "You're talking to me like one of your horses."
"It works with frightened fillies so it seemed worth trying." He smiled when she rolled her eyes with elaborate disdain, but sobered swiftly. "What do you want me to do, Callie?"
"I'm going to run away and I need money," she said bluntly. "Can you lend me some?"
He frowned. "Run away to where?"
"My Aunt Beatrice. She's my godmother and has said I'm welcome to visit anytime. I'll be safe with her."
"But for how long? If your father comes to drag you off to get married, she won't be able to stand up to him."
Callie bit her lip. "Then I'll change my name and disappear into Manchester or Birmingham. I'll find some sort of work."
"Become a mill worker?" he asked incredulously. "This is not a good plan, Callie!"
"Not a mill worker! You know how good I am at sewing. I'm sure I can find a job as a seamstress," she said impatiently. "If you can lend me twenty or thirty pounds, it will be enough to get me away and support me until I'm established somewhere my father will never find me."
He bit his lip, thinking how many disastrous things might happen to a pretty, inexperienced girl, even one who was intelligent, ingenious, and brave.
He caught his breath as a thought struck. Yet it made sense. "I have a better idea, Callie. Marry me. We can be in Scotland in two days and we're old enough to marry there without permission."
She gasped, her hazel eyes widening. "And you think I'm insane! We're too young to get married, even if it is legal in Scotland. Marriage is forever." She bit her lip. "I've always wanted to marry for love."
"My parents did that, and you know how well that worked out!" he retorted. "I've always thought that if I married, it would be to a friend, and aren't we best friends?"
She frowned as she considered his proposal. "I suppose marrying you would be better than a fat old planter with damp hands."
He grinned. "I am so very flattered."
"You know I didn't mean it like that! It's just that marriage seems so…so extreme."
"It is, but so is being bullied into marriage to a man you loathe." He shrugged. "If someday you meet someone you really want to marry, I won't stand in your way. It's easier to get a divorce in Scotland than in England. In the meantime, you'd be better off with me because I won't try to force you to do anything you don't want."
"There is that," she admitted. "If we're married, we'll both be free of our fathers and able to look out for each other."
"It would be a grand adventure," he said, liking the idea more and more. "At twenty-one I'll have control of half the money my godfather left me. It's enough for us to live comfortably. Between now and then, we'll discover what life is like for average people. We'll find work with some decent country squire. You can be a lady's maid and I'll look after the horses."
Callie's face lit with laughter. "You're right, it would be an adventure! Far better than marrying a dreadful stranger. We'll make it work. We always do. No more adults telling us we're too rebellious and ill behaved!"
"Too wild and fated to come to a bad end!" Exhilarated, Gordon swept Callie into his arms and kissed her. He started the kiss as a friend, and ended it as….something else. She was sweet and warm and strong in his arms, and for the first time ever he thought of her as a girl. No, not a girl, but a young woman ripe for marriage.
She also reacted to the kiss, leaning into him, her lips parting. Heat kicked through him. He'd admired his share of pretty girls and stolen a few kisses, but this was different. More. She would be his wife and they would have physical and emotional intimacy beyond anything he could imagine. The prospect was alarming, but also exhilarating.
Callie drew back, her eyes shining. "The adventure of a lifetime," she breathed. "And the sooner we begin, Richard, the better!"