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Mindful of eavesdroppers among the gardeners yanking weeds, he pulled her to her feet and out to a distant corner of the garden. In a low angry voice he explained that he had just met with Parham about their proposed marriage.
She sat down hard on a stone bench. "Proposed? John, I never meant for you to do that. You said you would pretend to court me, not propose marriage. Why did you do that? It must have been horrid."
"It was. It was." Her confusion made him angry, if he needed any more excuse for that. "I thought you understood. I had to request your hand to force his hand. To force him to do better for you than this, if he cared at all for you."
"But you shouldn't have done it. I didn't want him to insult you again."
Pity was worse than the rest. "I complete my contracts, and I will complete this new one also." Furious now, he grabbed her hand. "I haven't a ring yet, but I'll get one this afternoon."
"A ring?" She shook her head, as if he had awakened her from a deep sleep, and focused all her attention on the hand that held hers. "Oh, I see. You've lost your ring."
Through gritted teeth, he said, "I didn't lose the ring. It's just gone. And I'm not talking of that ring anyway, but a betrothal ring. I'll post the banns this afternoon. You'll want St. George in Hanover Square, I make no doubt."
"You don't want— John, what are you saying?"
"I'm saying—" He broke off and took a deep breath to cool off his voice. "Your uncle approved my suit. God knows why. Lunacy runs in your family, I've always suspected. So we'll have to marry."
She went utterly still, and savagely he realized he'd made a hash of it, that she hadn't understood until just then that they would be marrying. "Do you realize what I'm saying? Your uncle approved it. We'll marry. You'll get the collection."
"John, I didn't mean for this to happen, you know it."
"It happened. Accept it. He's not going to approve the poet now. You have no choice in the matter. "
"No choice?" She was still very quiet, still staring down at his hand. She rubbed with her thumb at the white circle on his ring finger, as if it were just paint and would come off with a bit of effort.
He jerked his hand away and rose. "I'm not going to be the cause of you losing your inheritance. And I'm not going to have it said that my behavior was less than that of a gentleman. I'll call on you tomorrow to get the arrangements started."
When he looked back from the garden path, she was still sitting there, her full mouth more mutinous now. But there was still that dazed look in her eyes, as if he'd struck her instead of proposed to her. He felt a stirring of guilt. She deserved better, he supposed, than all this. Tomorrow he would take time to make it up to her, to explain all the benefits of this arrangement, to assure her he'd do his best to make her happy.
But today he had to find a church and post the banns.
He was so preoccupied that he hardly heard the carriage lurch to a halt beside him. But he turned when he heard someone leap out of the hackney and call his name. He had just an instant to see the cool intent in the other man's eyes and reach for his knife. But an instant wasn't long enough. The assailant already had his truncheon lifted, so it was only a matter of bringing it down with sufficient force. And that he did, connecting smartly with John's head. John's last thought was regret that he hadn't turned back to conciliate Jessica, that she hadn't run after him to witness this, that he wouldn't get the banns posted this afternoon after all.
---

Poetic Justice is a Regency adventure romance, the sequel to Royal Renegade.
Alicia Rasley is a RITA-award winner and national e-book bestseller.

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