Noble Passions, Book 1
by Sabrina York
Ebook ISBN: B01HS40DDO
[ Historical Regency Romance, MF ]
Running from an unwanted marriage, she finds herself in the arms of a man determined to debauch her
James Tully, Earl of Darlington, ignored the blaze of panic in his gut as he scratched his name onto the document, sealing his doom. With that flourish, he imagined he could hear the door to his prison cell clanging shut.
“Excellent. Excellent.” Trueglove’s barrister, Mr. Winston, rubbed his palms together, his expression far too avid for James’ liking. The old coot flipped a page and pointed at another spot, and another. Dutifully, James affixed his signature.
With each scrawl his world shrank.
Really? he growled to himself. There was no need for melodrama. It was only a marriage contract. He was a peer of the realm with all the privileges of that rank. It was the rare man of his class who changed a whit of his life when he took a bride. Surely James would be no different.
Besides, the girl was barely out of leading strings. Straight from Lady Satterlee’s, the most prestigious—and priggish—school for girls in the land. Undoubtedly she would be a pale, meek, obedient mouse. James could train her as he liked. Even so, his penchant for doing as he wished, when he wished, exactly as he wished would most likely be curtailed. At least a bit. Wives had a way of doing that, he’d noticed.
But ah. In return, he’d receive the one thing he had lusted after his entire life. The Trueglove stables. He would also receive in the settlement the bulk of the Trueglove estate—with a small parcel at the east end, the only bit that was entailed, to be signed over to his bride’s uncle.
This marriage would double his lands.
His ancestors would be dancing jigs in their graves. He was finally reuniting the ancient barony that had been in his family for centuries—until a very drunk antecedent—the first earl, in fact—had lost half the estate in an unfortunate turn of the cards during the reign of good King George II.
Naturally there had been accusations of cheating. A duel. Bloodletting. The two families hadn’t spoken since.
But now they would be bound—forever.
Forever. In holy matrimony. He shuddered at the thought.
He and Hortense…Honoria—drat, what was her name? Something with an “H”. At any rate, the two of them. Bound together. Until death they should part.
He could barely stomach the thought. So he focused instead on the stables she would bring to the union. On the exquisite lines of those Arabian stallions. The foals they would produce. The races they would win. The price he could ask for stud. His mouth watered.
He shoved the papers back at Mr. Winston. “There. Surely that’s enough signing for today.”
“Yes, my lord.” The barrister gathered the papers as though they were the original copies of the Magna Carta and bowed. “Thank you, my lord.” He backed from the room, bumping into Baxter in his blind retreat.
A flicker of humor flashed over the staid butler’s face. It was gone in a trice; Baxter was excruciatingly proper after all. He held a crystal glass filled with an amber liquid on an elegant silver tray, which he offered with a bow.
Baxter knew him well—had looked after him since James had come here as an orphaned boy to live with his cold-hearted uncle, the old earl. James nodded his thanks and took the brandy, tossing it back. Too quickly, as it happened. He choked on the burning liquid.
“Do I presume congratulations are in order, my lord?”
James lifted a brow and took a more conservative sip. He loved the way it warmed him, numbed him.
“Too early to say, Baxter,” he said. “I’ll need to get a look at the wench first.”
Because she could, indeed, be hideous.
“Are you a fairy?”
In shock, Helena Eloise Simpson’s head whipped around and she stared up at a strange little man. He was gnarled and round and peered at her through thick spectacles. He was dressed in a tatty walking jacket and his boots were smudged with mud. He carried a knotty cane and a thick journal under one arm.
She sat up in a rush and hunted for her bag, found it and clutched it to her chest. Drat it all anyway. She shouldn’t have stopped to rest.
“Well? Are you?”
“I b-beg your pardon?” Heavens. Was she going to be murdered? Who would hear her if she called out for help in the middle of this unending forest?
She should have stayed closer to the road. It had been absurd to think she could remember her way when she hadn’t been home for years.
Home. She snorted to herself. What an illusion that had turned out to be.
“Are you a fairy, my dear, or not? Because if you’re not, I truly am a very busy man.” Proving this point, he leaned against a tree and fished a linen napkin from his pocket. He extracted a scone and proceeded to nibble.
Helena’s eyes widened. Her belly rumbled. Why had she not thought to bring food on her headlong flight?
The old man grumbled something to himself and then thrust his scone at her. She inhaled it, not dropping so much as a crumb.
“Never seen a fairy eat like that,” he observed, pushing his spectacles back on his nose.
“I’m very hungry.”
“So I gathered.” He looked up at the sky through the lacy canopy of leaves. “It’s going to rain tonight.”
She winced. Oh, bother. Not only would she be famished, she’d be wet and cold. And lost. “Can you point me in the direction of Cavendish, please sir?”
“You’re a long way from Cavendish, my dear. It’s miles away.” He waved in the general direction from which she’d come. Blast. She’d been going the wrong way. “And why ever should a fairy want to go to Cavendish?”
She could hardly tell him she planned to catch the mail coach for London before anyone noticed her absence. She didn’t know who he was. Besides, it was far too late for that plan. Once her draconian guardian realized she’d escaped—which he surely had by now—there’d be such a hue and cry. Sentinels posted at every turn. Beastly minions searching all travelers. Hounds trolling the woods. She’d never be able to slip away.
Her companion sighed. “You cannot stay here. You would freeze by morning. Come along with me. I’ll find you a safe place.” He hobbled down the knoll, using his cane for balance. “Just don’t tell the Fairy King I helped you escape him,” he tossed back. “I wouldn’t want to feel his ire.”
Helena didn’t move. Surely she shouldn’t follow a complete stranger farther into the maw of the whispering woods. She glanced around. The shadows were falling. A cold wind whipped up. Behind her a raven cawed an ominous call. She scampered to her feet, gathered her meager belongings and hurried to catch up with the gnarly troll.
God willing, this decision wouldn’t be the death of her.
James was at a loose end. He leaned against the stable and slapped the riding crop against his thigh. He deplored loose ends. Pennington had planned to come to stay for the week and had canceled at the last minute. James had been looking forward to seeing his friend, had developed an elaborate agenda in fact. They would ride the grounds and hunt and drink and cavort through town as they were wont to do.
But Pennington had canceled. At the last minute.
James wasn’t entirely sure why he was so disappointed. There was always next week. Or the week after that.
Surely it wasn’t that he’d wanted one last wild bacchanal before he finally met his bride. One last wild ride as an utterly free man.
But it wasn’t to be. Some issue with a shipment just in from the Far East had cropped up and Pennington had cried off. James kicked the toe of his boot into the dirt of the stable yard. Well, into the mud. It had rained last night.
He shouldn’t be in such a snit. He and Pennington were partners. It was his fortune at stake here too. A good portion of it at least. He should be glad Pennington was diligently attending to his investment.
But this abandonment left him at something of a loose end. And he’d had such hopes for lascivious entertainment.
He was thinking about taking the carriage to London for a few days—a visit to Madame Chantilly’s perhaps—when a movement to his left caught his attention. He glanced in this direction just in time to see Great-Uncle Andrew skulking from the servant’s entrance of the mansion and along the side of the house, balancing what looked like a covered plate and a cup. The old coot shuffled across the yard into the gardens and disappeared down the path.
Now what was he up to? James hung the crop on a hook on the stable wall and followed.
Great-Uncle Andrew had once been perfectly sane. Then one day he’d taken a tumble, a knock to the noggin. Thereafter, he’d become obsessed with the strangest notions. He was probably heading to the meadow to have another picnic with the elves living in the badger holes. Or back into the woods to hunt for fairies. James had even once found him teetering on a high stone in the ruins of the old castle, conversing with the spirits of long-dead Darlington ancestors.
But none of these places were his destination. Not today.
Today he made his way through the sprawling gardens, past the babbling brook and toward the gardener’s cottage.
James leapt behind an old oak as Uncle Andrew stopped at the potting shed, a musty relic covered with moss and vines and tucked into a crook of the hillside. He glanced furtively over his shoulder and then slipped inside. When he came out a short time later, his hands were empty.
Whistling a tuneless ditty and shoving his fists in his pockets, he headed back to the house. He wasn’t paying attention—he rarely did—so he walked right past James without faltering so much as a step.
Once Uncle Andrew disappeared from sight, James fixed his attention on the potting shed. He approached on his tiptoes and when he was close, put his ear to the door. Odd sounds, grunts and coos and slurps, emanated forth.
Perhaps his uncle had finally found himself a gnome to keep as a pet.
Indeed, it sounded like a gnome should sound—voraciously filling its face.
Burning with curiosity, James flung open the door. And froze.
Not a gnome.
Wide green—very female—eyes stared up at him in shock. A hank of beef dangled from her lips, which parted at the sight of him. “Oh!” she said.
Definitely not a gnome.
Uncle Andrew had found himself a girl. And a very hungry one at that.
Helena swallowed at the sight of the enormous man filling the doorway to her refuge. Her heart fluttered in her throat. Since his back was to the sunlight and the potting shed was very dim, she couldn’t make out his features, but from his clothes she could tell he was probably a gardener or a groom.
A very large gardener or groom.
She tried not to shrink back. It was a well-known fact that predators had a penchant for small creatures that tried to run away. They loved to chase.
He was probably one of those men she’d been warned about. She set down her plate and fumbled around for the table knife Andrew, her savior, had brought with her food. Her fingers curled around it. Her muscles tensed to fight off the vile attack she knew was coming.
But he completely ruined all her lurid expectations when he hunkered down on his haunches before her, tipped his face into the waning light, and smiled.
Everything within her seized. Good God. He was gorgeous. Easily the handsomest man she’d ever seen, although she hadn’t seen many. Men, that was. She’d been cloistered most of her life in a dismal prison.
He had a strong square jaw and a dented chin, all of it dusted with golden stubble. His eyes were sea-foam blue with thickly ringed irises and sinfully long lashes. Alluring lips and a nose like a long straight blade completed his perfection. On top of all that, he had broad shoulders and muscled arms that strained at the seams of his cotton shirt. The sleeves were folded up, exposing heavily veined forearms.
This was no lord of leisure.
She relaxed. But only a bit.
“What have we here?” His voice was low and silky, as though he were speaking to a child. Helena looked down at her dress, at the demure collar, the simple voluminous cut. It was Susan’s dress. Helena had stolen it without a thought. Now she realized it did much more than hide her true identity. It also masked her age. And her curves. It hung on her like a sack.
Accordingly, she adopted the persona of her costume. She’d always fancied herself something of an actress after all. She puddled up her face as though she was going to cry.
He wrenched back—she’d known he would. It was a well-known fact that men abhorred female tears. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. Rather pleased with the effect of her performance, she took it.
“Don’t cry, little one. I won’t hurt you.”
“Y-you sc-scared me.”
“Aw. I’m sorry.” He waited until her sobs abated—until she became bored with the effort. “Are you going to be all right?”
She nodded. Sniffed. Peered up at him.
He shifted closer, just a tiny bit. His scent wafted to her on his breath. She wasn’t sure what he smelled like, but it was delicious. A new hunger rippled in her belly. It wasn’t a hunger for food.
Heavens. This man was more of a danger than she’d realized.
“What are you doing in my potting shed, little one?”
She glanced at his hands resting on his knees. His knuckles were scraped, there was dirt beneath his nails. “Are you the gardener?”
He didn’t respond. A frown wrinkled his brow. “Please answer my question.”
Her tongue peeped out. His nostrils flared. And then he paled and yanked his gaze away, diligently studying the items on a shelf to the left instead.
“Andrew said I could stay here.”
“He found me in the woods and brought me here. He said I could stay.”
“Did he also tell you he was rescuing you from the Fairy King?”
She blinked. As a matter of fact, he had. She nodded.
The big man scrubbed at his face with a palm. “All right. Where do you live? I’ll take you home.”
Panic squeezed her chest. She gasped. No. She couldn’t go back. She couldn’t. What awaited her was surely a fate worse than death. She scooted deeper into the shadows.
“Dear God, child. Don’t look so terrified.”
“I’m not going back.” It was only a whisper, but he heard. He heard and he read in her tone the words unsaid.
“Is it that bad?”
He made a sound that sounded something like a laugh, but not an amused laugh. “That’s a big word for such a small girl.”
Annoyance snarled through her. She’d always been teased about her height and hated it. “I’m not so small.” She straightened her back to make herself look larger. His attention flicked to her chest, lingered.
“How…old are you?” He squinted into the shadows.
“Old enough.” She crossed her arms over her breasts. Another mistake. His eyes narrowed.
“You can’t stay here.”
“Andrew said I could.”
“Andrew also said he was saving you from the Fairy King. He’s a bit dotty. Besides, this shed is damp and moldy and hardly a fitting place for a young lady. Come with me and I’ll find you a nice warm bed and a hot meal.” He looked her up and down. “And a clean dress.”
She was rather caked in mud. A clean dress would be wonderful. And some steaming soup. And fresh sheets. A bath, perhaps.
“And you won’t send me back?”
He blew out a snort. “Not against your will.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes,” he said. “I do.”
And she believed him.
James watched as the fey girl uncrossed her legs and stood in one fluid motion. There was something about her that put his teeth on edge. He was sure it wasn’t lust. It couldn’t be.
She was a child, for Christ’s sake.
He glanced down at her as he helped her gather her things and his gaze stalled. For as she’d bent forward, her bodice had gaped open and he’d seen…he’d seen…
Surely not full, round breasts, unbound by a corset?
He studied her more closely as they made their way up the path toward the house. He fully intended to take her to the mansion and hand her over to Mrs. Miller before informing the constable he’d found a wayward waif. But when she emerged from the moldering shadows of the shed, the sun kissed her hair, caressed her features and he was poleaxed.
This was no child. This was a woman, and a damn beautiful one.
He recalled her reaction when he’d suggested taking her home and something roiled in his belly. She’d been frightened, terrified of the prospect, and now he could understand why. With her looks, she was a prize.
Many men viewed women as chattel and treated them as such. Especially in the lower classes—from which she obviously came, judging from her well-worn, ill-fitting dress. The thought of this beauty in such clutches soured his stomach.
He would much rather have her in his clutches.
That was to say, he’d much rather keep her here, with him, safe, until he could pry her story from her lips.
His thoughts drifted from his noble intentions to those lips. Soft and pink and pursed most temptingly.
Good God, he wanted her.
But he was an earl now. That complicated things. Thoughts of his impending marriage snaked insistent roots into his mind. If he brought a wench to Darlington the very day he became betrothed, surely there would be talk. Especially if the wench in question was sequestered in the earl’s chambers.
For several days.
As he explored her bounty.
Mrs. Miller would have apoplexy. The village girls would probably leave his service. He’d be reduced to making his own dinner and laundering his own smallclothes.
The staff had suffered quite enough infamy from his depraved—and mercifully departed—uncle.
And what of her? His bride? Whatever her name was? She would hear of it. Tongues did wag.
As much as he disliked the idea of answering to anyone, he didn’t want to begin wedded bondage—um, bliss—with such a thing between them.
He would probably annoy and disappoint his wife at some point. He just didn’t want to do it right away.
He sighed. Things would be so much easier if he were a simple gardener.
At least for a few days.
So when they came to a fork in the path, he didn’t lead her to the mansion. He headed instead for the gardener’s cottage. Old Babbage was off in Cornwall for a week meeting his newborn grandson. She could stay here—and James with her—while he…contemplated the possibilities.
It wasn’t quite the adventure he’d had in mind, but it was adventure enough.
And, as last-gasp escapades went, she wasn’t bad.
In fact, she was rather magnificent.