Currently viewing the category: "Regency"

Shadow's Curse by Alexa Egan

Shadow’s Curse

Imnada Brotherhood, Book 2
by Alexa Egan

Pocket Books

eBook ISBN: 978-1451672923
Print ISBN: 978-1451672923

Imnada shapechanger David St. Leger seeks freedom from the curse imprisoning him. Necromancer and half-Fey Other Callista Hawthorne seeks safety with an aunt she’s never met. Drawn together by danger, they find passion in each other’s arms. But can they forswear the centuries of enmity separating their two races, and find a love they dare not even imagine?

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Abigail's Earl by Starla Kaye

Abigail’s Earl

by Starla Kaye

Blushing Books

eBook ISBN: 9781627503006

James Ranborne, the Earl of Saliston, is brash, bold, and uncommonly handsome. Lady Abigail Remington wants nothing to do with him…yet he offers her all that she needs: a husband her family insists upon, freedom to do as she wishes, and no need to waste time loving him.

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A Twelfth Night Tale by Susana Ellis

A Twelfth Night Tale

Cotillion Christmas Traditions, Book 7
by Susana Ellis

Ellora’s Cave

eBook ISBN: 9781419949234

Andrew has returned from the Peninsula with emotional and physical scars. Surprisingly, it’s his sister’s friend “Little Lucy” who shows him the way out of his melancholy. He can’t help noticing that Lucy’s grown up into a lovely young woman, but with an eligible viscount courting her, he’ll need a little Christmas magic to win her for himself.

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Lord Rakehell's Love by Donna Cummings

Lord Rakehell’s Love

The Curse of True Love, Book 1
by Donna Cummings

eBook ISBN: 9781301952328

Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, is attempting to play matchmaker in Regency London. . . only she’s placed a curse on the lovers instead. Simon is late to his own wedding, and Georgiana is heartbroken by the scandal. After such a blunder, how can Aphrodite possibly reunite this couple?

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Pulse and Prejudice
by Colette L. Saucier

Secret Cravings Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-61885-253-3
Print ISBN: 978-1618853295

In his thrilling and sensual adaptation of the classic love story, Elizabeth Bennet and the citizens of Hertfordshire know Fitzwilliam Darcy to be a proud, unpleasant sort of man, but they never suspect the dark secret of his true nature. He is not a man at all – but a vampire.

Prologue

June 1814
“Is he dead, sir?”
“Is who dead?” Darcy slurred, although he knew to whom his valet referred.
* * * *
In the velvet darkness of the black night, his footfall—silent as death—stalked the prey as it stumbled out of the Cheshire Cheese and down the dim alley. Not until Darcy was nearly upon him did the drunkard hesitate and glance behind him towards his suspicion of someone—something—lurking in the shadows.
He turned around and squinted back from whence he had come. “Danny, is that you?” No, not Danny, nor any of the others he had left drinking ale at the public house, friends who knew all his secrets and accepted him nonetheless.
The heavy mist turned to a light rain and dampened the man’s face and lashes. As he fumbled forward, Darcy drew upon him with a swiftness that might have provoked a stronger response had his victim not been so intoxicated; but instead he managed only a confused grunt as his face paled and his eyes bulged, terror evident on his features as he fell into silent supplication. Darcy gripped his shoulders and stared with intent into eyes wide with shock and fear until the man’s eyelids drifted down and his body swayed. His prey’s muscles relaxed under Darcy’s grasp, and he pushed him against the wall.
Darcy should have despised himself for this act, for taking this stranger and feeding upon him, etiolating him; but he had long since reached the pinnacle of self-loathing. Indeed, he had chosen his quarry in hopes of drowning his agony in this blood.
His teeth sank easily into the thick skin of his victim’s throat, and he consumed the blood in a frenzy, not to sate a hunger but to quell an ache. Pain diminished any satisfaction in feeling the man’s pulse beat through his limbs, but he did not drink for pleasure. He drank to forget. To forget himself. To forget Elizabeth.

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Healing Hearts
by Taryn Kincaid

Carina Press

eBook ISBN: 9781426891274

Emma Whiteside once insisted Adam Caldwell wait for her to be of marriageable age. Now she blames the viscount for her twin’s death in battle, a woman’s bitter hatred replacing a child’s love. A smoldering kiss sparks emotions Adam thought long dead. Could any woman want a man so damaged?

Chapter One

The wind blew off the sea, moaning and wild, buffeting the man pacing the cliffs.
Hidden by a wall of rock, Emma Whiteside shielded her eyes against the bite of salt spray and continued to watch him, as she did every dawn.
Today, she thought. Today she would approach him at last. Confront him. Give him the royal tongue-lashing he deserved. She had nothing left to lose, after all. And she might not have the opportunity tomorrow. Or ever again.
The things I will say to you, Riverton, will peel the skin from your bones and lay you lower than anything Napoleon’s Grande Armée had to offer.
A small voice nagged Emma from within, the advice reasonable considering her current dire circumstances. Better to seek the man’s aid than chide him. But she snapped her mind closed against the unwanted counsel. The viscount was the last man on earth she’d ever ask for help.
Grief chilled her, numbed her heart, deadened the tender feelings she’d once had for him. Only her need for vengeance broke through her frozen emotions now. She longed to set Riverton in his place, however little effect her words might have on a man so impervious to remorse.
But once again Emma could neither confront him nor beseech him. The evidence of his stiff-necked pride—and her own—continued to hold her back with as much force as if an unseen hand pressed down upon her shoulder. She glared in the man’s direction, as if it were his hand oppressing her.
Fierce gusts punished him, impeding his tortured progress. Pain twisted his handsome features but he confronted the gale without flinching. A tiny chip splintered off from the ice sheath encasing Emma’s heart.
Damn him.
How do you bear it, Riverton? Are you made of stone?
She knew he was not. She saw the agony against which he fought, the stalwart way he pushed himself onward, despite the uneven gait that hampered his progress.
A cold blast of wind whistled past, ripping the hood of Emma’s cloak aside, whipping her hair against her neck. The frigid current stung her eyes, wringing reluctant tears. She blinked the moisture away and rubbed the damp trail from her cheeks.
No tears, she instructed herself. Not for him. Never for him.
Riverton wore no coat or cravat. His linen flapped about him, white shirttails torn from his trousers—an unlikely flag of surrender when he refused to give quarter.
Did you stand so against the French?
Emma could think of no oath dark enough to curse a man so remarkably stoic. She envisioned him in her mind’s eye, saber raised, hastening up and down the lines, shouting at his men to hold: Major Adam Caldwell, Viscount Riverton, at his most courageous.
She shuddered, conjuring the brutal attack that haunted her grimmest moments, the scene clouded by smoke and thunder, blurred by the limits of her grief and imagination. The battle where her twin had fallen, belly pierced by an enemy bayonet.
Michael admired you so, Riverton. I will never stop blaming you. ’Tis time you knew it.
Anger burned within her breast, bright as her love for the viscount once had.
And yet…her gaze swept him again, lingering on the trousers that molded his muscular thighs, the loose shirt that emphasized the breadth of his shoulders. ’Twas but the vicious wind that stole her breath, she told herself.
Why was he here? Why had he come now? What was he doing marching about the windswept cliffs so close to the manor when he had not had the decency to call upon her family? He had not answered the letters she’d sent after they’d first learned of Michael’s death at Albuhera. And now, considering her current untenable situation, Riverton’s presence here seemed too cruel a taunt.
Go to him, her inner voice dared again. Ask him for aid. You know he will help you.
Emma straightened and shook her head. She knew no such thing. She did not know this resolute, unyielding man at all anymore. No matter how dire her plight, she would never beg Adam Caldwell for a farthing. She might have little of value left, but she still had her pride. And that pride demanded she read him a scold—if she could only muster the courage to do so.
Emma studied Riverton’s grim, determined face, experienced etched upon the angles like the engraved lines on a printmaker’s plate. She stifled the sigh that threatened to escape her.
What would it be like to be held in this man’s powerful arms, crushed against his hard body? Odd tingles raced down her spine. Nightmares of war may have chased her girlhood dreams but her fascination with Riverton persisted, despite the world-weary air that now settled over him like a cloak.
The viscount planted one booted foot in front of the other and trudged across the rock-strewn ledge mottled with dying chalkgrass and choked with brambles. He clenched his jaw, as if grinding his teeth to bite back the pain.
Grudging respect for the single-minded effort with which he exercised his wounded limb stole over her. Warring emotions wracked her. She fought an urge to run to him, to soothe his knotted brow with her fingertips, stroking the grooved lines of care away. Bittersweet passions swelled and crested until her heart raced. Despite the wretched weather, a surge of heat engulfed her. She flattened her palms against her warming cheeks.
Damn his eyes.
“I am not that silly minx in pigtails anymore and I will not let you do this to me again!” Emma gripped the embroidered handkerchief she had labored over with the last of her silk thread, never finished when the skein ran out. She forced her fingers to unclench before she tore the fragile muslin square.
How her circumstances had changed since that long-ago garden party!
Twelve years earlier, watching the viscount flirt with young ladies his own age, she’d marched over to him, abuzz with indignation. Throwing back her shoulders and jutting out her chin, she’d tugged on his coattails until he turned and smiled down at her.
“You have succeeded in capturing my complete and undivided attention, Miss Whiteside. Or should I call you ‘general’?”
The startling glint in his blue eyes—a sparkle bright as a shooting star streaking across the midnight sky—thrilled her. She’d ignored his gentle teasing.
“You will wait for me,” she’d ordered him.
He’d dropped to a knee, leaning toward her until mere inches separated his face from hers. A dark eyebrow lifted like an elegant black bird drifting into flight formation.
“What do you mean, poppet?”
“You will wait for me to grow. I will marry you and be your lady.”
He hadn’t laughed. Instead, he’d regarded her with wry solemnity.
“Of course, I will, poppet. You’ve stolen my heart. I will wait for you forever.”
Then he’d straightened, hauling her up with him and swinging her around until she’d shrieked with delight. How stiff his left leg seemed now, in contrast to the nimble teenager he’d been. He favored it, as if uncertain whether the limb would bear his weight. She tamped down another unbidden flare of compassion.
A man like you will never need bend a knee. But that was too callous a thought, she chided herself, even for a wretched man like Riverton.
Thank God she remained too far away to see his eyes. From the rigid set of his jaw, Emma suspected the horrors of war had doused the ready light that had once shined there. She was certain bleak shadows now dulled their remarkable blue the way a pall of smoke turned day to dusk on the battlefield.
Emma tried to stoke the fast-ebbing fires of her resentment. But the more she watched Riverton’s exhibition of sheer stubborn will, the more she softened, her pangs of longing growing ever more insistent.
Adam Caldwell still possessed the power to make her heart flutter. More so now as a virile man of nine and twenty than he had as a stripling of seventeen.
But she had lost too much. Her twin brother lay in a forgotten grave in Spain, her father had gone missing, and she would be turned out of her childhood home tomorrow.
Then what? How will I save Papa? How will I ever find him? What if she could not secure a position as a governess or paid companion? Would she be forced to make her way in the world on her back? There was so little time left.
Talk to him.
Emma shivered and wrapped her cloak tighter around her to block out the persistent carping of the voice of reason. She knew now she was fooling herself. She would never confront the blasted Adam Caldwell. Not to dress him down. Not to ask his aid. But her predicament remained. High time to stop her useless spying on the wretched viscount and seek some other solution to her thorny dilemma.
Chores awaited her at the manor. The muslin torn from her few worn chemises would not block and stitch itself. Perhaps she could never satisfy Papa’s debts by embroidering handkerchiefs to sell at the village linen-draper and haberdasher shop, but at least she could stock the larder until she found a way to rescue Papa and save their home.
Some way other than the one with which Papa’s creditor had presented her.
Emma rose from her hiding place and brushed sand from her hands.
Riverton abruptly stopped pacing. He tilted around and stared straight at her. Emma shrank behind the stone outcropping again. Had he seen her? Impossible.
But his gaze skewered her like a rapier. He took the decision out of her hands.
“The show is over, madam. I’ve entertained you long enough.”
>His deep voice reached her across the windy bluff, affecting her as if he stood close beside her, his hand encircling her wrist and pulling her forward. The rich timbre resonated through her, as intoxicating as sherry. Her hunger flared.
Emma took a gulp of salt-tinged air and emerged from concealment to face him. “We meet again, Miss Whiteside.”
The young woman’s sudden appearance, after she’d remained hidden so long, broadsided Adam like a cannon shot.
He’d sensed her presence but had never actually seen her as anything more than a vague shadow, concealed in the gray mists of dawn as she darted to her secret observation post like a French sharpshooter. He had not placed her. Until now.
Her luminous countenance flooded with surprise as she swayed back against the shelf of rock, covering her mouth with two fingertips. The gesture drew Adam’s attention to her gently parted lips. Kissable lips. Very.
“You did not expect me to know you, Miss Whiteside? You’ve changed a great deal. But I’d know you anywhere.”
Emma dropped her hand and her spine took on the brittle rigidity of iron. Swathed in her cloak, she gazed at him with fierce fire burning in her eyes, as long tendrils of wine-red hair escaped her hood and slashed her cheeks.
“Why have you come, Riverton?” Her tone could have peeled the rind from a lemon. He was not accustomed to such address; even during the war men had leapt to obey his barked commands. This young woman, such a study in contrasts, baffled him. His nostrils flared, like those of a beast aroused by its mate. His blood coursed faster. Adam flicked his hand toward the steep cliffs and the churning waters that slapped the rocks below. “The air,” he informed her. “I’m taking it.”
“Why not? You’ve taken everything else precious to me.”
What in bloody hell was that supposed to mean? Perhaps he had been tardy in paying his respects to her family. He had bided his time, healing his body, if not his soul, as he gathered his strength and—more recently—collected disturbing information in the village below. But devil take the wench, he was here now. Despite the physical and mental toll his presence on the windswept cliffs cost him.
Her acid words sizzled across the thick scar tissue encasing his heart, burning away all that no longer mattered. And undoubtedly producing the precise opposite of the effect she’d intended. It had been a long time since he’d looked at any woman with interest. But suddenly he hungered to run his hands over Emma’s flawless skin, taste her sweetness and tang on his tongue.
“Not everything precious, surely. I dare say we’d both have remembered that.
His suggestive words found their mark. Color sprayed her face like a Spanish sunset, arousing him further. She did not pretend to misunderstand him, as a wilier girl would have. With no coy fan to hide behind, her emotions spilled across her expressive face as plainly written as the headlines of a broadsheet.
“I dare say your memory would be as suspect in that regard as in any other, my lord.”
“I’m rather certain the experience would prove unforgettable, madam. For both of us.”
What possessed him to say such outrageous, rag-mannered things to her? Was it the bold way she continued to hold his gaze with eyes the changeable color of a stormy sky? Or the troublesome rumors he’d heard at the local tavern?
“No doubt the war has robbed you of many things, my lord. As it has me.” Her gaze slid to his leg, the walking stick upon which he leaned, the edge of his jaw, where a thin, white scar crawled like a worm. “But despite the depths to which I may have fallen, I have managed retain my manners.”
He deserved nothing less than such a chiding, but he heard only half her rebuke.
“What depths?” he demanded, stepping forward and seizing her chin in his hand. Were the damned rumors true? If not, he’d flay the skin from the back of any man he heard spreading them. He tilted her face and stared into her eyes. “What depths, Emma?” Her color flared hotter and he felt the quickening of her pulse where the side of his hand rested against her throat. But she twisted out of his grasp.
“That is my business. I thank you for your interest in my affairs, my lord, but I shall take care of myself.”
Her cool, sarcastic words tore something within him. What had happened to her father? When last he’d seen George Whiteside, the man had been a complacent country squire, a regular fellow, if occasionally somewhat high in the instep, a man who’d sought the best for his children. Now his son and heir was dead and, if the gossip Adam had heard was correct, Whiteside had taken to drowning his grief, becoming a drunkard and inveterate gambler far out of his league. Was that it? Had Whiteside landed in dun territory, gambling away his daughter’s prospects along with her dowry?
Adam considered the small squares of cloth in his pockets, with their tiny elegant stitches, one of them so horribly stained with blood. Anger akin to the red rage of battle momentarily seized him in its grip, and he wished he had a sparring partner to pummel. But he took a calming breath. If he’d learned nothing else in the last few years, he’d learned the emptiness of violence.
Did Emma have no one to protect her now? What had happened?
“Do not trouble yourself, Riverton,” she said, as if reading his thoughts.
Adam frowned. Should he place her under his protection? He had not taken a mistress since before the war. His soul might be dead but he was still a man. A broken, damaged man, perhaps, but one with needs. He had not had a woman in nearly a year—not since before he was wounded at Albuhera. Better to put some distance between them, he thought.
But he couldn’t remember when he’d last seen a chit this striking. Had his blasted leg allowed him greater agility, he might have leaped on her then and there, dragging her to the hard earth for a satisfying ravishing.
What the bloody hell was he thinking? He had never in his life done such a thing. Not with the prostitutes and women of easy virtue who followed the drum. Not with the Iberian women whose bodies were pillaged along with their homes. He was not about to start now.
Certainly not with this woman—no matter how plump and kissable her lips. She deserved better than a man with no heart. No matter how far she had fallen. If, in fact, she had.
Adam leaned on his staff and reminded himself he was a gentleman, even if he’d seen things no gentleman should see, and done things no gentleman would do. Things that would haunt him forever. He further reminded himself that the young woman before him—however much she currently resembled a wild-haired, blazing-eyed banshee ripe for his plucking— was a lady, gently reared. Even if her own father had forgotten that.
The honorable Miss Emma Whiteside. Michael Whiteside’s twin.
The corporal’s hair had been light, not this astonishing claret color. And the finely whittled features that seemed to resemble Michael’s at first blush were far different, indeed.
His gaze rested upon cheeks, soft and rounded as plums, that invited the touch of a man’s lips, and then lingered on a sultry mouth shaped for more wicked delights.
The willful, unruly little chit had grown into a diamond of the first water.
Her intriguing gray eyes, silver as a saber, fairly snapped at him, the battle waging in them as intense and wrenching as any Adam had experienced on the Peninsula.
Sparks flew as they stared at each other, like those borne by the clash of Toledo steel.
Emma moistened her lips as if they’d gone dry, the tip of her tongue darting out. Quite different from the calculated flirtations practiced by the fan-wielding ladies of the ton. No artifice here. None at all.
Adam’s cock stirred and his balls tightened. He longed to taste those unschooled lips. He ached to invade her mouth with his own tongue, drawing sweet sighs of pleasure from her as he savored her kisses and seduced her with his.
As if she sensed the direction his thoughts had taken, her gaze travelled to his mouth, making him burn. Mixed emotions marched across her face, ragged as raw recruits.
Adam swallowed, trying to squelch his feverish attraction by recalling a long ago tea—a lifetime ago, it seemed to him—and a young lady’s impertinent proposal. But the feisty woman confronting him was decidedly a woman, all of twenty now, not an impetuous eight-year-old suffering a bout of puppy love. Her eyes flayed him as if only by stripping the skin from his bones would she know any respite from her grief. The starch that straightened her spine held her rigid as the chalk that formed the cliffs upon which they stood.
He dipped his head and stifled his groan. She did not yet know the mission that brought him here. Only the thought of the wretched piece of cambric embroidered with the initials M and W and blotched with her brother’s blood had tempered his irritation when he’d learned the extent of her father’s misdeeds. The man’s worthless paper was popping up all over the county. Adam had sent his batman, Oliver Garrett, on fruitless missions to Whiteside’s favorite haunts, but the squire had not been ferreted out as yet. Now Garrett was searching venues less frolicsome.
Was there some way to shield Emma from what was to come?
Despite her apparent distaste for him, something more than ire animated her. Mutual awareness flared between them like dry kindling under a match. The desire to fan those reluctant embers into flames of passion, blazed through Adam again. His longing grew more intense, more difficult to shake off.
“Why have you come now?” Emma demanded. “I wrote and wrote, after that first brief letter you sent us from the Peninsula. You did not deign to answer.”
“How do you fare, Miss Whiteside?”
“How do you think I fare, my lord? My brother is dead and my father…”
Her voice trailed off and Adam noted her wince. But he decided this was no time for sugar-coated sentiments. Even in London drawing rooms he had never minced his words. And this harsh, windy bluff was hardly a Mayfair salon. Emma Whiteside’s stiff back and unwavering glare convinced him she was made of sturdy stuff.
“Your father is a drunken lout who gambled away property not his to wager,” he finished for her with a tight-lipped lack of diplomacy. “That is why I am here.”
Emma’s hand fluttered to her throat. Did his blunt words shock her? Had she been unaware of what her father had tried to do? “Not his?”
“You did not know?”
“I do not believe you.”
Adam stared at her in disbelief. “I am not in the habit of lying, Miss Whiteside.”
Emma’s posture lost some of its starch and Adam caught a furtive mote in her silvery eyes, before her long lashes descended and her glance slid away. She swiftly regained her composure, tilting her chin with a defiant air as she returned his gaze. He admired her spirit. More than her hen-witted twin had possessed.
“I thought perhaps you had come to apologize for taking my brother from us. For leading him into a battle from which he would not return.”
Adam’s guts wrenched as if she’d stabbed him and then twisted the blade. But he bore her words without comment. What was one more assault upon a heart so bruised and battered it had turned to dust?
The loss of his men would haunt him into eternity, their faces appearing in nightmares that gallons of brandy could not wash away. He punished himself for all of them. Including the foolish Michael Whiteside. Emma did not need to know that her brother’s death had been more senseless than most. But Adam had put off this hard visit long enough.
“Your father’s dissolute nature is not the only reason I’ve come.”
“My father is grief-stricken, my lord. If he has taken to drink, ’tis to ease the ache in his heart. Have you no charity in your soul?”
Adam well understood the oblivion found in spirits. Perhaps the man’s drinking was responsible for his lack of judgment, his indiscriminate play at cards.
“I’ve come, also, to pay my respects.”
“Too little, too late,” Emma muttered, as if to herself.
“Miss Whiteside.” Adam took a step toward her. A nerve-jangling jolt of pain tore through his left leg, setting his teeth on edge. The price he paid. But a precursor, he knew, to the relentless agony that always threatened to lay him low. On occasion, he could overcome the crippling effects of his wounds through sheer force of will. He suspected this morning would not be one of those times. He had pressed himself too hard.
“What is it?” Emma demanded.
“M’leg,” he grated through his clenched jaw.
“Take my arm.”
“No.”
“Have you always been so bloody stubborn?” Her eyes flashed again.
“Some might say.” Such as his father or his equally stubborn batman, Oliver Garrett.
“I don’t remember that about you.”
“The man you remember is gone.”
Emma flinched as if he had struck her but her unwavering gaze held his, challenging him more than any idle wager he’d ever taken up at White’s. “I am sorry to hear that. I quite liked that man. So did my brother.”
Adam’s fingers tightened on his walking stick, and he sucked in a breath. Had it not been for her blasted brother—
He shook his head to repel his dangerous thoughts and muttered a low oath beneath his breath. He refused to shatter the girl’s illusions about the corporal. War had consequences, after all. He’d been Whiteside’s commanding officer. He had no one to blame but himself.
“No one understood why you did it,” she murmured.
He started and then stared at her, his gaze raking over her in a forthright manner, daring her to continue in the face of his displeasure. But she braved his mounting ire and would not be turned from her course.
“You were such a brilliant rogue, cutting so vast a swath through the ton. All the fashionable society ladies and their mamas dangled their lures for you, hoping to bring you up to scratch. All the rakish young men wanted to be you. And when you inexplicably marched off, they…Michael…wanted to follow your lead, as he’d always done. He followed you straight to hell, Riverton. But you returned. And he did not.”
Young Whiteside had taken the king’s shilling because of him? Of course, he had known that, in some dark corner of his soul.
Adam swayed and gripped his stick until his knuckles whitened, as another jangle of pain ripped through him. He would not embarrass himself in front of the stalwart young woman confronting him.
“Take my arm,” she insisted. “Unless…perhaps you are too much man to accept a woman’s support?”
Adam snorted. “I suddenly recall a bossy little girl who ordered me about as if she had a perfect right to,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “That much, madam, has not changed.”
A hint of English rose splashed Emma’s cheeks. Adam could not allow himself a moment to appreciate the pretty blush—or to acknowledge that he was actually enjoying this absurd banter with her in the midst of his increasing discomfort. But something about Miss Emma Whiteside—something apart from her striking looks and his immediate physical attraction—caused his blood to race and all his senses to go on alert.
He shut his eyes and ground his back teeth, hoping to ward off the worst of the attack he knew was coming—at least until he could whistle Champion back to his side and swing himself into the saddle.
But his strenuous exercise and the harsh weather, combined with his horrific memories of combat, blasted him like an explosion of enemy artillery. Thunderbolts lanced his leg, flooding him with agony so intense he nearly doubled over. He felt the blood drain from his face and he staggered.
Emma leaped forward to support him. Concern replaced the belligerence in her eyes, darkened to gunmetal-gray.
“This will not do, Riverton. You must lean on me.”
“Still the bossy little harridan.”
She sighed and reached for his forearm. The brush of her fingertips sent a coil of shock through him more stunning than the waves of searing fire radiating from his leg. He’d anticipated that pain. But he had not expected the soothing glow generated by the touch of Emma’s hand or the warmth flowing through his linen sleeve. His reluctance to accept her help evaporated.
Nor was Emma unaffected by the contact, he decided. He heard the small hitch when she inhaled, the low huff of breath she expelled with an odd little choking sound. The slightest of tremors shook the fingers that gripped him.
Despite his misery, Adam remained completely aware of her clasping his arm as if her slight frame could prevent a man of his size from toppling. Though wracked by pain, his body still hummed with arousal.
Adam inhaled. The scent of her hair reminded him of the tart fruit of the Portuguese strawberry tree, used to make potent aguardente de medronho. He’d often drunk himself senseless on the powerful brandy, trying to numb his physical agony as well as the hollow ache that gnawed the dry bone of his heart.
Now, pondering his reaction to the dauntless Emma Whiteside—and hers to him—he decided he might benefit from the more restorative tonic of her touch. This girl rejuvenated his exhausted spirit more than any forced march over the cliffs helped to rehabilitate his leg.
He slid his arm around her waist, dragging her closer. She fit comfortably against his side, as if she belonged there. Her breath caught again, then settled into a ragged, irregular cadence. Her response seemed to invite a more seductive touch from him. His fingers splayed against her rib cage and slid toward her breast, drawing a gasp from her.
“I don’t think…” Emma’s words trailed away.
“I do.”
Adam’s gaze slid down her, eliciting a sultry flush, a more rapid thrumming of her heartbeat beneath his hand. Her eyes still snapped at him with pique even as his proximity coaxed her nearer.
“Riverton…”
“Yes?”
“I—I am but trying to help you.”
“There are many ways a woman might ease a man’s pain,” he murmured, his gaze locking on hers. She did not look away. She did not move away. But plainly she understood him.
Adam hesitated briefly. She had him all at sixes and sevens. What a confusion of messages she was sending. Did he confound her as much as she baffled him? He chose to swiftly interpret her signals in masculine fashion, responding to the unconscious way she beckoned him closer.
He leaned toward her, curling his larger body around hers as he dipped his head. Emma’s lips parted, her breath uneven on his cheek. His own breath quickened, as he traced the line of her jaw, feathering one fingertip over her smooth flesh while his thumb caressed the soft skin beneath her chin. He wanted to taste her. Slowly and deliberately. Before she realized what he was about and slapped his face.
But of course, he could not be such a bounder. “I am going to kiss you now, Miss Whiteside.” She gazed back at him, one brow lifted elegantly in challenge. Aside from the anxious flutter of her long lashes, she did not show her nervousness. Nor did she pull away.
Adam brushed his lips against hers with gentle grace, the exact opposite of what he wished to do. Ah, but she was sweet. So very sweet. Emma’s eyes drifted closed and he deepened the kiss. She responded with a little sigh, circling her arms around his neck and tugging him closer. He wanted to savor every moment of the kiss and make it last as long as he was able, but the innocence of her velvet lips and the feel of her young body curved against the hard ache of his arousal pushed the limits of his self-control. His passion flared hotter. He crushed her against him and plunged his tongue into her mouth.
She emitted a mewling little squeak he did not know how to translate. He broke off the kiss. “Too much?” At first she did not reply. Then, a whisper. “No.”
“Show me what you want, poppet,” he growled into her ear.
His use of the old nickname drew a swift reaction. She stiffened, shoving against him to stare into his eyes, her own uncertain.
“Don’t be frightened, Emma.” “I am not frightened. I am…confused.” He would have to decipher those turbulent feelings for her, Adam decided. But before he could put any plans into action, she surprised him by sliding her fingers into his hair and giving him an ardent tug, even as she cursed him like a Cheapside doxy.
“Kiss me again, you bloody bastard.”
Her shocking words enflamed him. No virginal miss would ever issue such a stunning directive. But there was little question in his mind that their last kiss had been her first. The bossy little harridan he remembered had never been shy about issuing orders, he reminded himself. He needed no further invitation.
Adam’s lips seized Emma’s with urgent desire, the kiss hot and carnal and raw. His whole body blazed with hunger, his cock rigid and rock-hard with brutal need. He was desperate to possess this beautiful bundle of feminine contradictions. He’d never wanted any woman more. God help him.
Emma pressed herself into him, twisting as if she could not get close enough, and kissed him back with startling thirst. This was insanity, Adam thought. Her tongue slashed his as if they were engaged in a fiery duel. She panted, as aroused as he was. He couldn’t wait to tear all her clothes off and drive himself into her tight, wet heat. He had to have this woman. Soon.
He clamped his arm fast around her, bonding her to his chest. Selfish of him. He was at least a head taller and outweighed her by several stone. When he crashed, he would bring her tumbling to the ground with him.
Heated images blistered his thoughts as he pictured Emma’s soft body beneath his, spreading her velvet thighs wide for him. He imagined her legs wrapped around his waist as he thrust into her with pounding need, losing himself in her slick, inviting warmth. He fantasized driving into her again and again, as her fingers dug into his shoulders and he swallowed her moans of pleasure with his hot, sensual kisses, spilling his seed in urgent release. For once forgetting the cursed war.
Damn him for the blackguard he was.
He expelled a groan that had nothing to do with his injuries and lifted his head from hers at last. He struggled for the control to call a halt to this madness. A dazed rapture filled her eyes, turning them a dreamy, liquid silver.
“Let me go, Riverton,” she said, several heady moments too late, utterly breathless, her face aflame.
“I’m not quite ready to do that, Miss Whiteside.”
She paused a beat and he felt her shiver. He loosened his fierce grip.
“When might you be?”
Never.
The silent word burst in his head and Adam suddenly realized he wanted something more than a sexual romp from Emma. He wanted to find himself again—if such a thing were possible any longer. Before he’d kissed her there had been nothing in the world he cared about. Now he did care—he did not want this woman to hate him any longer. He wanted her to soften toward him, body and heart. The feel of her steadying hand on his arm bathed him in soothing tenderness. Nothing had touched his stricken soul in a very long time.
He gritted his teeth. The honorable thing would be to protect Emma from the damaged, desolate man he was now. Did he have that much nobility left? What to do with her, though?
Adam hadn’t considered the girl’s plight when her father’s worthless vowels had come into his possession. Clearly, Whiteside hadn’t either, when he’d attempted to gamble away pieces of the property, one by one. The manor’s true ownership was apparently a mere nuisance that Whiteside had decided to overlook when he’d papered the local tavern with his valueless notes. Adam’s annoyance with the heedless reprobate who’d been willing to risk everything—even the house his daughter lived in—had been foremost in Adam’s mind. Now, new emotions occupied that place.
He stole another glance at Emma. Tendrils of hair the color of a fine ruby port whipped her cheeks. Her mouth remained reddened from his kisses. He still hadn’t answered her question. All he knew was that he didn’t want to let her go. Not today. Nor any day after.
She pushed against his arm again and stepped back, as if she could read the dangerous thoughts warming his eyes. He’d fallen out of practice in the art of flirtation.
“I may have failed your brother, Miss Whiteside. But I do not intend to fail you.”
Emma tensed at his mention of her twin. “I have no need of your assistance, my lord.”
“But have it you shall.”
He knew then what he had to do. His path stretched clear and wide before him, like a road map of his future. A future that suddenly had meaning and did not at all displease him. He suspected his father would not approve. Yet, he’d done precisely as he wished from the time he’d cast off leading strings. While still a lad in short coats, he’d abandoned all pretense of trying to please the earl. He saw no reason to change now.
“How do you propose to help me, Riverton?” Emma taunted him. “You can barely stand.”
Adam sucked in another deep breath, attempting to relax his body. If he could unknot his cramping leg for a moment, he would be able to straighten up. The limb failed to cooperate. He bit back an anguished grunt and staggered.
Emma clutched his arm again. He shook her off and leaned upon his walking stick until he could uncoil to his full height. He wanted to be upright.
“I can stand at an altar long enough to wed you.”
Emma gasped, as if he’d dashed her in the face with a pail of icy water. Staring at him in disbelief, she sidestepped farther away.
“Why so surprised, madam? You did offer for me once upon a time.”
“I was a child.”
“You’ve grown. I’ve decided to accept your proposal. Simple as that.”
“Not remotely simple, you chuckleheaded man.”
Adam’s gaze roved over her, hot and intense, as if the potency of his appraisal alone might brand her as his.
Under his scrutiny, Emma’s blush deepened, ripening her curved cheeks like fruit on a vine. Her gaze never left his. Adam admired her steel, the backbone that allowed her to stand up to him now, as the little girl of eight had done.
He struggled to keep on his feet, despite his certainty that his unreliable knee would not hold him much longer.
“Accustom yourself to the idea, Miss Whiteside. You will marry me and be my lady.”

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Sappho’s Sisters
by Berengaria Brown

eBook ISBN: 978-1-4659-8379-4

Lady Eustacia Lumley and Margaret Durrell are very interested in Sappho’s poetry and ideas. One evening,
Margaret has a headache and Eustacia offers to massage her scalp. They fall deeply in love, but is there any hope for them? Will they have to conform to rigid Regency society?

Chapter One

Almack’s Assembly Rooms, London, 1814
“Why ever did we agree to come here tonight?” groaned Lady Eustacia Lumley to her bosom bow, Margaret Durrell.
Margaret, the fourth daughter of a near-penniless vicar, looked all around the famous Almack’s Assembly Rooms. “Because your father wanted to flirt with Lady Jersey?”
Gervase Lumley, the Earl of Wentworth and Lady Eustacia’s parent, was indeed talking to “Silence,” as Lady Sarah Jersey was affectionately known for her ability to talk non-stop.
Eustacia laughed. “He probably had to promise to dance with her protégés to convince her to give him the vouchers for you. He’d much rather be in the card room, but she knows he dances very well and she has ever had a soft spot for a man with an elegant dancing style.”
“Truly I am grateful to be here. One has not arrived until one has received vouchers for Almack’s.”
“Besides, you look lovely in white. And the simple style of your gown is perfect.”
“You mean no one will think the gown is plain because my father cannot afford a wealth of ribbons and lace? That they will assume it’s because I am young and virginal?”
Eustacia’s hazel eyes danced as she suppressed a giggle. “Precisely. Oh dear. Here comes the Honorable William Hughes to dance with you. Be sure you smile at him, he’s quite a catch,” she whispered behind her fan.
Within moments Eustacia, too, was swept into the country dance just forming, and although her partner bored her almost to tears, she did enjoy the slow and stately movements of the dance.
* * *
After a week in Town, Eustacia was keen to return to Green Meadows, her home outside London. It was ideally situated on good farming land, a full day’s journey from the bustle of the city—close enough to make a trip to Town for shopping or parties easy, but not so close that people were endlessly arriving unannounced.
She was particularly pleased to have Margaret staying with them for at least three months. Margaret’s long-suffering Papa despaired of marrying his four motherless daughters appropriately. Both Margaret’s Mama and her Papa came from the nobility, but the Reverend Mr. Durrell had inadequate funds to launch them onto the marriage mart. He loved them and wanted them to be happy, not just married to the highest bidder.
“Ah well, he won’t need to worry about Margaret for a while,” she mused.
Although Margaret was eighteen to Eustacia’s twenty-four, they both had lively minds and had formed an instant bond in the brief year they’d both been at Miss Marcomb’s Academy for Young Ladies—Margaret’s first year there and Eustacia’s last. They both loved learning and had read avidly. Since then, they’d kept in touch with long letters and had recently been reading and discussing Sappho’s poetry. Eustacia was looking forward to talking more about it with her friend.
Sappho’s sharp imagery, her immediacy, her control, and the rhythm and almost melody of her words were immensely appealing. Not to mention some of her underlying ideas—ideas which were increasingly compelling to Eustacia.
Eustacia had never been sexually attracted to men. While all the other young ladies at school had been sighing over the dancing master and the riding master, Eustacia had only desired to learn the subjects they taught. Their male beauty stirred her heart not one iota. When she had first made her curtsy to the Ton, many handsome and eligible young men had sought her hand for that lascivious dance, the waltz. Not one of them had made her heart beat faster. Fortunately, her father, the earl, had made no attempt to push her to accept any of the three very flattering offers he had received for her hand. Even more fortunately, Gervase’s younger brother, Anthony, had three fine, strong sons to inherit the title, so there was no pressure on Gervase to marry again and produce an heir, or to marry off his daughter to ensure a grandson to inherit.
But Margaret. Ahh, Margaret did make her palms sweat and her heart beat faster. Margaret’s bright, inquiring mind and ability to converse intelligently on any topic. Margaret’s soft brown eyes and shiny brown hair. Her white skin and pale cheeks that flushed enchantingly when Eustacia smiled at her.
Eustacia had read widely about Sapphic love and was eager to experience it—but only with Margaret and only if Margaret was willing. Meanwhile, her reading had taught her much, and with the help of a handheld looking glass, she had learned a lot about the art of self-pleasure. As for the anatomist Mateo Renaldo Colombo, who claimed to have discovered the amor Veneris, vel dulcedo—“the sweetness of Venus”—Eustacia was willing to bet her late mother’s emeralds that Sappho and her followers had known about their nubbins six hundred years before the birth of Christ!
* * *
That evening, the women settled into a comfortable sofa in front of the fire in the yellow sitting room at Green Meadows with their embroidery.
“It’s good to be home again,” said Eustacia. “I like the hustle and bustle of Town, and shopping and parties are always fun, but I prefer to come home and sleep in my own bed.”
“Thank you once again for inviting me to stay with you for three months. Poor Papa is at his wits’ end wondering what to do about us all. Now that I have turned eighteen, he’s suddenly realized that Anne is very nearly twenty-two and time is running out to find her a good husband.”
“Four children in four years. Ugh. That’s one aspect of marriage I have never accepted—a baby every year.”
“No. I find that concept unappealing too. In fact, I find most men unappealing—selfish, arrogant, and quite often, silly. So many of the notables I danced with at Almack’s could not think past their clothes and their horses. They all either owned, or would inherit, property. Shouldn’t they be thinking about their lands and the needs of their tenants? Papa is always concerned about the lives of his parishioners.”
“Maybe they thought they shouldn’t talk about such things with a young woman.”
“Possibly.” Margaret did not sound convinced.
“Do you not want a husband and children of your own?”
“What I want is irrelevant. Papa cannot keep supporting us all and what else is there for a woman who is noble-born but impoverished? I’ve thought seriously about becoming a teacher or governess, but families wanting a governess usually also have sons, so they will not hire a young woman like me. I could be a companion to an old lady. I can sing, and draw, and sew, as well as speak passable French. But I suspect agreeable old ladies wanting a companion are few and far between, and I am much more likely to end up with a most disagreeable old lady.”
They both laughed, then turned the conversation to happier topics.
Much later that evening, Eustacia noticed Margaret screwing up her eyes and frowning. “What’s wrong, Margaret?”
“I have the headache. I seem to get it more and more often these evenings. I don’t understand why. The light here is good for sewing, much better than at home. Good wax candles are so much more expensive than tallow,” she said and sighed.
“It’s almost time to go up to our chambers anyway. Would you like me to come and massage your head? My nurse used to massage mine and it really helps.”
“Yes, thank you. That would be nice.”
They put away their embroidery and walked companionably up the stairs together. Eustacia’s maid was waiting for her and soon Eustacia was in her night rail and robe, her hair brushed out. She dismissed the maid, then walked down the hall to Margaret’s room. Margaret, who had no maid, was just tying her robe.
“Sit at your dressing table and let me undo your hair,” Eustacia said.
Slowly, she pulled out the pins and untwisted the braid. Margaret’s long, shiny brown hair rippled across her shoulders and down her back. Eustacia picked up Margaret’s hairbrush and drew it through the thick, wavy hair, pulling carefully and steadily from root to end in smooth sweeps.
“That does feel good. I can remember when my nanny used to brush my hair. I always enjoyed it.”
“I want you to enjoy this too,” Eustacia whispered, letting her hot breath tickle Margaret’s left ear as she kept up the smooth strokes with the hairbrush. From front to back, from root to tip, Eustacia drew the brush through the hair in firm but gently soothing sweeps.
Margaret’s eyes closed and her shoulders relaxed some of their tension.
Eustacia noticed this, nodded to herself, and put down the brush, replacing it with her fingers as she pressed against Margaret’s scalp and began her massaging. First she rubbed in deep circles, beginning at the left ear and moving across Margaret’s head to the right ear. Then she moved to the front of Margaret’s head, massaging deeply, pressing her fingers firmly against Margaret’s scalp, kneading from front to back this time.
By the time she’d finished, she could tell Margaret was much more relaxed, her shoulders no longer tense, her brow no longer furrowed.
Eustacia bent and pressed her lips to Margaret’s still-exposed neck, kissing it with soft, light, butterfly kisses from left to right across her neck, ending at her right ear which she gently sucked into her mouth and nibbled on. Eustacia blew into that ear, then began to kiss her way across to the other side and repeated her caress on the other ear.
“Mmm, feels so good.”
Eustacia let her hands rest on Margaret’s shoulders, rubbing them softly, then more firmly, soothing and stroking her way down to the elbows, then back up again.
Margaret’s eyes were closed, her breath coming more harshly, her body totally relaxed in Eustacia’s hands.
Eustacia rested her hands on Margaret’s sides, and when Margaret made no move to complain, she ran them up to cup the younger woman’s breasts. Margaret’s nipples were hard little points under the soft velvet of her robe. Eustacia pushed the robe apart so she could touch Margaret’s breasts through the thin linen of her night rail. The breasts were full and round, her nipples now engorged, and just touching them made cream seep from Eustacia’s cunny.
“Take off your night rail. Let me see you naked.”
“You first.”
Eustacia untied her robe and let it slide off her shoulders. Then she lifted her night rail up inch by inch, exposing first her neat little ankles, then her long slender legs, and finally her cunny, dew-slicked with desire for the younger woman. Eustacia pulled the shift over her head, revealing rounded hips and stomach, and large, firm breasts with hard, berry-brown nipples. “Now you.”
Margaret’s soft brown eyes stared deeply into Eustacia’s compelling hazel ones, their greenish, golden, brownish depths ever-changing in the light from the fire. She stood up and slipped her arms from the robe and night rail. Then, holding her night rail from the inside, she copied Eustacia’s movements of slowly revealing her feet, ankles, legs, and knees.
But then, in a teasing maneuver, she pulled her head out of the garment and held it in front of her midsection as she bunched it into a ball, gradually revealing the tops of her creamy-white breasts, then the full globes, her belly, and finally she dropped the linen shift onto the floor exposing her cunny.
The curls covering her womanly center were the same shiny brown as her hair, her hips were narrow, and her belly flat. With her legs slightly spread, she was the most inviting and delicious thing Eustacia had ever seen.
“I want to kiss you. I want to touch your body. I want to give you pleasure.”
“I want that too,” whispered Margaret, opening her arms and inviting the older woman’s caresses.
Eustacia stepped forward, lightly held Margaret’s shoulders, then gently, softly, lightly pressed her lips to the younger woman’s.
Margaret showed no shyness. Immediately, she kissed back, her arms automatically going around Eustacia’s waist.
Eustacia deepened the kiss, licking along the seam of Margaret’s mouth and flicking her lips with the tip of her tongue. As soon as Margaret parted her lips a little, Eustacia slid her tongue in, letting it rest quietly for a moment, then running it gently along the inside of Margaret’s cheeks, and behind her teeth.
After a gasp, Margaret joined in, her tongue sliding deep into Eustacia’s mouth and exploring there. Eustacia sucked on Margaret’s tongue as her hands ran down the younger women’s arms and rested on her butt, pushing her against Eustacia, so they stood pressed belly to belly, breast to breast, pelvis to pelvis.
Eustacia could feel the heat coming off Margaret and was sure the other woman could feel the heat she generated too.
She redoubled her efforts, sucking on the other woman’s tongue before pulling back to kiss her eyelids, her forehead, her nose, and her cheeks, then returning to her mouth for another deep, tongue-thrusting union.
Eustacia could feel Margaret’s heart pounding against her own chest, hear the other woman’s breath coming in harsh pants, so she dropped to her knees and spread Margaret’s legs wide so she could kiss her cunny.
Eustacia licked along Margaret’s nether lips, gently sucking first one then the other into her mouth, before licking her from her hot, hard little nubbin to her anus. Holding Margaret’s thighs, she inserted her tongue into the other woman’s cunny, licking the nether lips and then sliding her tongue along the walls, feeling the other woman’s cream drop onto her tongue.
Next, she nibbled the nether lips again, before licking circles around her red, engorged nubbin. Finally, she sucked the nub into her mouth and was gratified to feel more cream seep from Margaret’s channel, which she licked up.
Standing once again, Eustacia said, “Kiss me. Taste yourself on me. You taste better than the finest French brandy.”
Margaret threw her arms around Eustacia’s neck and pressed her breasts into Eustacia’s, rubbing her aching nipples across the older woman’s soft breasts and feeling Eustacia’s nipples as hard points against her own breasts.
“It tastes strange. Not unpleasant—but different,” she murmured, pressing her body harder into Eustacia’s. “I want more. I need…”
“You want to reach your pleasure. Have you never experienced your pleasure before?”
Margaret was confused. Many things in life were pleasant. But she needed…something, now.
“Lie on your bed. Let me show you.”
Margaret lay on the bed, moving to the middle to allow room for Eustacia, but Eustacia slid down so her head was at Margaret’s cunny again.
“Oh yes, kiss me there again, please.”
“You taste wonderful. I’ll do much more than just kiss you,” Eustacia promised.
This time, Margaret kept her eyes open and watched as Eustacia licked and sucked at her privates, gently pulling on her nether lips and then sucking that hard, hot piece of flesh into her mouth. As Eustacia touched her, and licked and sucked, Margaret could feel a ball of fire in her belly growing and growing, wanting to consume her.
Eustacia’s tongue was deep in her cunny, running along the walls and pushing up against a place that felt oh-so-very good.
Then Eustacia pressed a finger inside Margaret’s cunny and Margaret couldn’t help but gasp at the pleasure it gave her. Eustacia’s mouth was on her hard button again. Eustacia’s finger was in her cunny, and the ball of fire in her belly was growing, growing, expanding…
With a cry, Margaret felt herself explode into little pieces as the fire roared through her body from her belly out, down her arms and legs, and up through the top of her head. Waves of fire rolled through her over and over again, shaking her and still Eustacia licked and sucked at her cunny, making the intense feeling continue on and on until Margaret thought her body might break.
Finally, Eustacia slid up the bed, lying on her as she kissed her. Margaret kissed back enthusiastically. “Oh, my, that was— I’ve never—”
“That was finding your pleasure. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“Enjoyed is too mild a word. I’ve never felt anything like that before.”
“But you will again. We can do that any time you want.”
“Thank you. But you need to teach me how I can do it for you. I want you to experience it too.”
“I would like that. And I’ll show you how you can pleasure yourself too. It’s not quite as intense, but it is still very enjoyable indeed.”

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Badcock by Debra Glass

Badcock
by Debra Glass

Ellora’s Cave

eBook ISBN: 9781419928598
Print ISBN: 9781419962448

Dressed as a masked highwayman, Jack Badcock, Earl of Stafford, thinks he is acting out the fantasies of a woman he knows only through lurid letters. By the time Jack uncovers his fantasy lover’s true identity, it’s far, far too late.

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Chapter One

[Continue Reading...]

Reckless Liaisons
by Kayleigh Jamison

Black Lyon Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-934912-13-3
Print ISBN: 978-1-934912-13-3

When Julia Deveraux awakens in the Duke’s rose garden, the memories flood back. A betrothal she detests. The great black horse stolen from her father. Her near escape … Now under Sebastian’s care, she sees the rumors of his disfigurement are far from true. But will her secret connection to his sworn enemy tear them apart before love brings them together?

 

Chapter One

 

The horse’s hooves beat a clamorous tattoo against the cobbled streets, stirring the low fog that had settled like a blanket. Julia dug her heels into the stallion’s taut flesh, urging him faster still. With a grunt and a sharp exhalation of breath, he picked up speed, mane tossing in the wind, droplets of water splashing in his wake. She had no concern for the scandalous picture she painted, streaking through the outskirts of London on the giant black stallion, legs straddling either side of the beast as a man would ride. Haste had been far more important than modesty, and she hoped the cloak of night’s darkness would hide the inconspicuous nature of her dress. Her maid had borrowed the trousers and plain linen shirt from one of the stable hands. Her hair had been pulled back in a simple tie at the nape of her neck, and now strands of it came free, wrapped around her arms in stringy tendrils.
A rush of exhilaration, relief, and gratitude passed through her as she finally broke free of the city, leaving the lights and the warmth behind in a blur. The countryside stretched out before her, and she slowed her mount to a walk, allowing the horse a chance to rest as much as she dared. She couldn’t stop, not until she’d made it to her destination. She wouldn’t be safe until she was there.
Time passed. Minutes? Hours? It was hard to tell. The rain stopped and started intermittently, the moon disappearing behind the clouds for longer and longer stretches. For the first time since her impromptu flight, she realized the folly of her decision. How was she to make it to her grandfather’s estate, all the way in Scotland, when she hadn’t a clue where she was? With no money, no change of clothes, and no sense of direction, she was certainly in over her head. She could hear her father’s voice in her head, This is just like you, Julia, to act so recklessly. You’ll bring ruin to this family.
But that was how terrified she’d been of her father’s decision; even now, lost somewhere on what she hoped was a road leading north with only an intermittent sliver of moon to guide her, she preferred her current predicament to how she should have spent her night – on the arm of her new fiancé, a man she feared and despised. Her stomach churned at the mere whisper of his name in her mind.
The Earl of Suffolk, despite his suave veneer and strikingly handsome visage, carried himself with an air of sinister cruelty, stained with a black reputation that even his newly acquired wealth and title could not wash away. The ton feared him, whispered of his exploits behind fluttering fans and tilted glasses. He was the only eligible bachelor on the market this Season that didn’t have endless hordes of young debutantes being shoved in his direction. It wasn’t that he was a rakehell – such indiscretions were easily forgiven by an earldom and a heavy purse. No, it was the rumors of violence and depravity that kept the ton away – brothel girls beaten and bloody in his wake, former mistresses so bruised they were unable to appear in public for weeks, men who had crossed him found dead the slums, if ever found at all. Then there was the young debutante who had taken her own life after he’d compromised her and refused to marry her. If you seek the devil, seek no farther than Thomas Howard, her aunt had said. And Julia’s father, desperate to marry his only daughter to a wealthy man who could pay off his gambling debts, had sacrificed her without a second thought. The daughter of a Viscount, she wasn’t the most sought after deb of the season, and her father had been unwilling to leave his fate – and hers – to chance.
The moment her engagement had been announced, she’d begun formulating a plan. When the Earl had caught her alone in the parlor and murmured lascivious promises of how he planned to delight in robbing her of her innocence, she’d known she had to flee. And as he’d blithely informed her that he saw no need to wait until their wedding night to pass the time in her bed, all thoughts of a well planned escape had mutated into a desperate urge to get away as quickly as she could. Her mother’s father was a Scottish Duke with a large castle just outside Edinburgh. Since the death of her mother seven years before, her grandfather had begged to have Julia come to stay with him in Scotland. If she could just make it to him, he would help her. He would not allow her to be bartered and sold to an English rakehell, to suffer the same fate Julia’s mother had. The Viscount had charmed her, seduced her, married her for her money to satisfy debts that, even then, were dangerously large. Once the money had run out, he’d cast her aside, sending her to live in his country estate, visiting only rarely. In truth, Julia had known very little of her father growing up. It was only when she reached marrying age that he had shown any interest, had brought her to London and had his sister begin to groom her for introduction to the ton.
A muffled noise startled her out of her reverie and Julia realized that she was not to be alone much longer. The sound of hoof beats behind her indicated that whoever they were, there was more than one, and they were moving fast. Highwaymen? Her heart lurched with sudden fear. She hadn’t even considered the possibility of being accosted on the road. She attempted to calm her racing heart by reasoning with herself. Perhaps it was simply another desperate traveler such as herself.
Or perhaps it’s your fiancé, her nearly hysterical mind screamed. It was no doubt well past the time, now, when she had been expected at Lady Winterton’s soirée. The Earl had promised to do many things to her this evening, and most of them could be accomplished just as easily here, if not more so.
Thinking quickly, she steered her mount off the road and into the dense covering of the forest just as the moon slid behind the clouds, leaving her cloaked in complete darkness. She slowed the horse to a walk, acutely aware of the crunch of leaves beneath its hooves, and for the first time that night, found herself grateful for the rain as it muffled the noise of her movement.
The tree branch caught her unawares, slamming against the side of her head with a force that jarred her teeth. With a moan she slumped forward against the stallion, and succumbed to unconsciousness.
* * *
Sebastian Cade had seen many things in his two and thirty years. A massive black stallion trotting through the gardens of his estate with an unconscious figure slung across its back was not something he’d ever expected to witness.
Sitting behind the large oak desk in his study, sipping brandy and attempting to chase away the headache that had formed after a seemingly endless day of reviewing accounts and answering correspondence, he had glanced up at the rush of movement in his peripheral vision, highlighted by the light pouring from the kitchen on the opposite side of the manor. He shook his head and looked a second time, expecting the strange vision to have disappeared. But no, there it was again; the horse slowed, lowering his head, and began to nibble with enthusiasm on the perfectly manicured bushes hedging the northernmost garden path. The rider, who had been slumped against the animal’s wide neck, slid forward at the loss of support and toppled, face first, unceremoniously to the ground. Though dressed as a man, he deduced the rider was female from the tangled mass of long black hair, blended almost seamlessly with the nighttime darkness. Her mount seemed unconcerned – after a brief shake of its head in her direction, he returned to his grazing.
“Bloody hell,” Sebastian muttered, rising to his feet and moving to the door of his study. He supposed the situation required investigation. He was exhausted, and in a rather foul mood after seeing how much money his younger brother had spent on gambling last month, but he couldn’t very well leave a comatose girl sprawled in the midst of his roses.
“Milord.” One of the maids met him in the hall. “Yer not going to believe this,” she said.
“There’s a girl in my garden.”
“Aye, milord. Did ye see ‘er too, then? I’d stepped out o’ the kitchen t’ fetch some wood an’ there she was. We couldn’t find William, so Mrs. Holland said to fetch ye post haste.”
“Tell Mrs. Holland not to fret, I’m going to investigate.”
“She also said to tell ye to be careful, Yer Grace.” The young girl handed him her lantern with a coy smile.
He grinned in spite of himself, rubbed a hand across his face, and took the lantern. His scar throbbed, as it often did when he was frustrated. “Do tell Mrs. Holland that I can take care of a small slip of a girl perfectly fine, especially one that is unconscious.” The older woman who served as his head of household had been his nurse maid as a child, and was the closest he’d had to a mother growing up, his own having died giving birth to Sebastian’s brother. She’d been wildly protective of him in his youth and little had changed now about her opinion of his ability to care for himself.
With a final nod to the serving girl, he turned and headed for the back door of the manor, then out into the gardens and towards the crumpled heap that was barely visible in the milky blackness. The large black stallion lifted its head and snorted at his approach. It was an impressive animal – ridiculously large for such a small girl, clearly bred for racing. He’d have it cared for, as soon as he saw to its rider.
“Well,” Sebastian murmured, crouching down to brush thick black hair from the girl’s – no, woman’s – face, “this makes things interesting.”
She was indeed a woman, he realized as he set down the lantern. Gripping her shoulders, he gently turned her onto her back and a pair of deliciously full breasts swayed into view beneath the torn fragments of her shirt, snared by the rose bush’s thorns. The rest of her figure was slender and girlish but the swell of enticing porcelain flesh which rose and fell with each ragged unsteady breath proved his damsel in distress was certainly not a child. Her clothing was crude, simple tan breeches and the now soiled, torn shirt, but on her feet were dainty women’s slippers embroidered with green and gold. It was almost humorous and had the circumstances been different he surely would have laughed. Her skin was pale and flawless, not the tone or texture of a servant or peasant girl. What the devil was a woman such as her doing face down in his garden dressed as a stable hand, let alone riding unaccompanied across the English countryside?
His eyes came to rest on her face, tilted to the side and resting against one slender shoulder. Fine, sculpted brows arched above eyes protected by lashes so long and full they brushed the apples of her cheeks in a graceful fan. He wondered what color her eyes were, and hoped, irrationally, they would be blue. High cheekbones and a tiny button nose gave way to a full pouty mouth and small chin which lent her face a heart—like shape. Turning her chin, he surveyed the left side of her face, and discovered the source of her unconsciousness. A vivid, purple bruise marred her pale skin, just above her left temple, and a jagged cut had leaked blood down her cheek, now crusted to a dull brown.
Skimming his hands along her form, Sebastian performed a cursory check for broken bones and was relieved to find none. He stood and lifted her into his arms, surprised at how light she felt cradled against his chest.
Mrs. Holland waited for him at the door, worrying her bottom lip and wringing her hands together.
“I need water and bandages,” he ordered. “And clothes. I believe my sister has some night gowns in her old room. Someone locate my wayward valet and have him tend to the horse.”
“Shall I send for the doctor, your Grace?”
“Not yet.” With a shake of his head he started for the back staircase. “Help me tend to the wound, and then we’ll decide how bad it is.”
“Who is she?”
Sebastian paused and again shook his head, glancing down at the bundle in his arms. In the warm light of the kitchen she looked even more beautiful than his initial assessment had deduced, lips slightly parted, the ugly mess on the left side of her face the only indication something was out of sorts. Her chest rose and fell in a gentle rhythm, drawing his attention lower, back to her breasts once more. An angel? He bit back a laugh. Where had such an absurd thought come from? It reminded him of the things he’d once said to… Don’t. “I’ve no idea.”
He continued up the stairs to the sounds of Mrs. Holland scurrying about the kitchen gathering the items he’d requested. Carrying the girl down to the far end of the hallway, he shouldered open the last door on the right and moved to the large canopy bed that stood against the far wall.
He set her down as gingerly as possible, while the young maid bustled in behind him, lighting candles in his wake. The woman let out a tiny moan and stirred. One eye fluttered open briefly before drifting closed again.
“It’s alright,” he heard himself whisper, “you’re safe.”
He’d been right. Her eyes were blue.

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