A Scarlet Bride

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One

Charleston, South Carolina 1895

The sound of excited whispers enticed Connor Manning's gaze to the top of the staircase. He watched in amusement as Charleston County's most prominent socialites turned and stared at the latest arrival at the Rutherfords' ball.

His gaze slid over the tall brunette, lingering on her almond shaped eyes, smoldering in her delicately shaped face. His blood quickened, his interest renewed in the opposite sex once again.

There before him stood a woman well worth losing the last redeeming qualities of his otherwise tarnished reputation. A woman who, from all appearances, seemed to be causing a stir unlike anything he'd seen before. A stir he hoped would give the old biddies someone other than himself to prattle about. Though several years had passed since he'd made an ass of himself over Georgiana, society had yet to forget.

The buzz of voices from the elegantly dressed men and women around Connor grew louder, reminding him of angry bees swarming the hive. Who could the lady be, to cause such a stir?

"William, who is that stunning creature?" he asked, nudging his closest friend in the shoulder.

William Cunningham turned, glanced up the stairs, and choked on his brandy.

Connor reached over and slapped a hand against the back of William's coat.

Gasping for breath, William replied softly, "That's Alexandra Halsted Thurston, Gordon Thurston's ex wife."

The bodice of her satin brocade green and gold evening dress molded to her feminine curves, pushing up the swells of her breasts, which were accentuated by three delicate roses in the vee of her bosom. Connor had never felt the urge to pick roses until this moment. But now he wanted to pluck the thorny stems with little care for their stinging prick.

As he glanced around the room, it seemed every male eye was centered on the woman.

"Don't tell me," Connor said with a chuckle. "She divorced him because he went mad with desire for her."

William smiled. "No. Actually, he divorced her."

Connor glanced at his friend, brow raised in speculation. There was only one reason a man could divorce his wife.

"Adultery." The word echoed throughout the room, bouncing off the walls as guests bandied it about.

If the woman noticed the stir, she seemed to pay no heed as she floated down the marble stairs, head held high, her walk regal and courtly.

"Who was the lucky man?" Connor asked, his gaze following her as she glided through the room. An older couple he recognized as his neighbors trailed close behind her.

"Don't you recall the scandal that shook the New York banking society four or five years ago?"

"It's best not to heed gossip when your name is often the center of such scuttlebutt."

"No, I guess you wouldn't." William shook his head. "Her father is James Halsted III. She often visited here as a child."

"The Halsted family? Of Colonial Bank, New York?"

"That's the one."

"Why have I never met her?"

William cleared his throat. "Her father kept close watch over his only child."

Connor raised his brows. "Isn't James Halsted as wealthy as the Vanderbilts?"

"That brandy must be clearing the fog from your brain after all," William said, swirling his drink.

"You're a fine one to talk. Tell me more," Connor urged.

"Her father married her off to Gordon Thurston just as she finished Miss Bloomfield's School for Ladies. The marriage joined New York's two most prominent banking families, but only lasted a year before Thurston filed for divorce, accusing her of adultery. Last I heard, she'd fled to London."

Connor released a mock sigh. "How unfortunate."

"I heard she was in the English countryside caring for an elderly relative," William said, sipping his drink.

"Right." Connor looked skeptical. "How could a woman who looks like her hide away for years?"

"It would seem unlikely," William replied, staring at Alexandra.

"Divorced. Beautiful. Sounds like a combination fitting to my tastes. Similar to ruined, lonely, and available."

William glanced at Connor as if he'd lost his mind. "Didn't you just rid yourself of one soiled little bird?"

Connor laughed. "Yes, and I'd daresay the fair widow is at this moment looking for someone else she'd like to lead down the aisle. I'm simply looking at the menu, deciding which dish to enjoy next."

"The problem with you, Connor, is that you always skip the entree and start with dessert."

"Why waste time? I go after what I want. Can I help it if I have a sweet tooth?"

William scowled. "It's a wonder your teeth aren't rotting."

"You worry too much, my friend." Connor sipped his drink, letting the liquid sooth his parched throat.

"You don't worry nearly enough," William chastised. "When are you going to quit retaliating and punishing women for Georgiana's seduction and settle down with a decent woman?"

Connor shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant, even though every time he heard his first love's name, he tensed. "That's not my purpose. I only approach women who know the rules of the game. Nothing permanent, nothing lasting."

William shook his head. "One day, my friend, some woman is going to teach you a lesson in love. I hope I'm around to watch."

Connor raised his glass to his friend and asked, "So how do you know so much about Mrs. Thurston?"

"My sister was her roommate at Miss Bloomfield's. They still correspond occasionally."

Searching the crowd, Connor spied the woman in question sitting on one of the couches along the edge of the dance floor, fanning herself with a green and gold fan. The breeze teased wisps of hair about her face and neck.

The guests carefully avoided her, as if divorce were some contagious disease that might spread through social contact.

She looked up ... emerald eyes met his stare and narrowed as if to warn him away, but his body responded to a deeper feeling.

He observed her, unable to break her gaze, until she flicked her fan across her face, covering her eyes. She had the face of an angel and the body of a temptress. Innocent and seductive, a wonderfully dangerous combination, guaranteed to set a man's blood afire. And all he needed was a spark.

"If she were warming my bed, I'd make certain she wouldn't have any need to look at another man," Connor said, voicing his thoughts aloud.

William scoffed. "She wouldn't look twice at a man like you."

Turning to his friend, Connor asked, "And why the hell not?"

"You're not of the same social level. Her father must own half of Wall Street. Besides, last I heard, she'd turned down every man who had made any attempt at being friendly. Doesn't want any more scandal, I suppose. In less than polite circles, she is referred to as the 'Arctic Princess."

Connor raised an eyebrow. "Ah, but she hasn't met me." With a decisive jerk, he drained the brandy from his glass in a single gulp and handed the snifter to his friend with a grin.

William took the glass, a worried expression on his face. "Oh, no. I recognize that look. What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to ask Mrs. Thurston for a dance. Then maybe tomorrow, I will ask her out for a picnic at Old Man Middleton's place. And then I'm going to—"

"You are such a fool." William laughed. "This is one conquest you aren't going to make."

"I bet she's in my bed within a month," Connor replied flippantly, straightening his cravat.

William placed their empty glasses on a passing servant's tray. "You're on. Five hundred on the lady giving you frostbite and nothing else."

Connor had made the offer in jest. Even at their drunkest, he and William had never bet on a woman before. But then, Mrs. Thurston most assuredly knew the rules of the game, having indulged in one liaison during her marriage.

"Joe has that new colt of his for sale," Connor said. "The money I make from our bet should just about cover his price."

"You can't afford to lose," William grimly reminded him.

"I'm not going to lose. Five hundred dollars says she will be mine."