Where's My Hero?
Where’s My Hero
Against the Odds
A Tale of Two Sisters
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Against the Odds
If any man knew how to hold his liquor, it was Jake Linley. God knew he’d had a lot of practice at it—and it was a good thing, too, otherwise he’d be staggering drunk at the moment. Unfortunately, no matter how much he drank this evening, it was not going to numb the bitter awareness of what he could never have.
Jake was tired, and hot, his caustic resentment seeming to rise with each moment he spent in the luxurious, crowded cavern of a ballroom. Separating himself from a group of friends, he wandered to a gallery that bordered the room, glancing at the sky that loomed dark and cool beyond a row of glittering windows. At the end of the gallery, Robert, Lord Wray, was surrounded by a smiling throng of friends and well-wishers, all of them congratulating him on the betrothal that had been announced an hour ago.
Jake had always liked Wray, a pleasant enough fellow whose combination of intelligence and unoffensive wit made him welcome in any company. However, at this particular moment, a feeling of contempt coiled inside Jake’s stomach as he glanced at the man. He envied Wray, who didn’t begin to realize the extent of his good fortune in having won the hand of Miss Lydia Craven. It was already being said that the match was more to Miss Craven’s advantage than to Wray’s, that her social position would be greatly advanced when her fortune was joined to a well-respected title. Jake knew better. Lydia was the true prize, regardless of her family’s common origins.
She wasn’t a conventional beauty—she had her father’s black hair and his wide mouth, and a chin that was a bit too decisive for a woman. Her figure was slim and small-breasted, falling short of the voluptuous standards that were considered so desirable. But there was something irresistible about her—perhaps it was the charming absentmindedness that made a man want to take care of her, or the intriguing touch of playfulness that lurked beneath her pensive facade. And of course there were her eyes… exotic green eyes that seemed out of place in such a sweet, scholarly face.
Sighing grimly, Jake left the overheated gallery, stepping out into the cool spring night. The air was humid and fecund, weighted with the fragrance of damask roses that burgeoned from the terraced gardens below. The wide, stone-flagged path stretched along a series of narrow box-edged beds filled with geraniums and a heavy misting of white feverfew. Jake wandered aimlessly along the path, almost to the end, where it curled gently into a set of stone steps descending to the lower gardens.
He stopped suddenly as he saw a woman seated on a bench. Her profile was averted as she hunched over something she held in her lap. Being a veteran of London soirees and balls, Jake’s first assumption was that the woman was probably waiting to meet a lover for a few stolen moments. However, he experienced an instant shock of recognition as he saw the dark silk of her hair and the decisive lines of her profile.
Lydia, he thought, staring at her hungrily. What in God’s name was she doing out here alone, so soon after her betrothal had been announced?
Although he had made no sound, Lydia’s head lifted, and she beheld him with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. “Dr. Linley.”
Drawing closer, Jake saw that the object in her lap was a little wad of notes, which she had been scribbling with a broken pencil stub. Mathematical equations, he guessed. Lydia Craven’s obsession with such masculine pursuits as math and science had been gossiped about for years. Although well-meaning friends had advised the Cravens to discourage such unorthodox interests, they had done the opposite, taking pride in their daughter’s adroit intelligence.
Shoving the objects hastily into her reticule, Lydia sent him a frowning glance.
“Shouldn’t you be inside with your fiancé?” Jake asked in a gently mocking tone.
“I wanted a few minutes of privacy.” She sat up straighter, the shadows playing softly on the sleek lines of her body and the molded white silk of her bodice. The indentation between her winged black brows and the moody set of her mouth were so antithetical to the image of a starry-eyed bride-to-be that Jake couldn’t restrain a sudden grin.
“Wray doesn’t know that you’re out here, does he?”
“No one does, and I’ll thank you to keep it that way. If you will kindly leave—”
“Not before I offer my congratulations.” He approached her lazily, his heartbeat accelerating to a swift, strong rhythm. As always, her nearness aroused him, quickening his blood and sending frantic messages to his nerves. “Well done, Miss Craven—you’ve caught an earl, and a rich one at that. I suppose there is no greater achievement than that for a young woman in your position.”
Lydia rolled her eyes. “Only you could make congratulations sound offensive, Linley.”
“I assure you, my good wishes are sincere.” Jake glanced at the space on the bench beside her. “May I?” he asked and sat before she could refuse him.
They studied each other intently, their gazes locked in challenge. “You’ve been drinking,” Lydia said, catching the scent of brandy on his breath.
“Yes.” His voice had thickened slightly. “I’ve been toasting you and your fiancé. Repeatedly.”
“I appreciate your enthusiasm for my betrothal,” Lydia said sweetly, pausing with expert timing before adding, “or is it enthusiasm for my father’s brandy?”
He laughed gruffly. “Your betrothal to Wray, of course. It warms my cynical heart to witness the ardent devotion you display for each other.”
His mockery brought a flush of annoyance to her face. Lydia and the earl were hardly the most demonstrative of couples. There were no intimate glances, no seemingly accidental brushes of their fingers, nothing to indicate even a modicum of physical awareness between them. “Lord Wray and I both like and respect each other,” Lydia said defensively. “That is an excellent foundation for a marriage.”
“What about passion?”
She shrugged and tried to sound sophisticated. “As they say, that is only fleeting.”
Jake’s mouth twisted impatiently. “How would you know? You’ve never felt a moment of real passion in your life.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because if you had, you wouldn’t be entering into a marriage that contains all the warmth of last night’s table scraps.”
“Your characterization of my relationship with Lord Wray is completely wrong. He and I desire each other a great deal, if you must know.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, yes I do! But I refuse to