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No one in tiny Chesley knows the truth about Damaris Howard; a woman of wealth and beauty, she rarely allows anyone to get close. Her past was marked by scandal and abandonment?better to stay aloof and reinvent herself.
Then Damaris meets Alec Stafford, the Earl of ...
No one in tiny Chesley knows the truth about Damaris Howard; a woman of wealth and beauty, she rarely allows anyone to get close. Her past was marked by scandal and abandonment—better to stay aloof and reinvent herself.
Then Damaris meets Alec Stafford, the Earl of Rowden. The tall, handsome border lord is a man of quiet but deep passion, raised to show no weakness and burned once before by a woman’s love. But when he and Damaris cross paths inside London society, they set sparks of attraction blazing—and rumors flying.
And when someone abducts Damaris from the city streets, Alec must stake more than his reputation to rescue her. . . . Finding out who’s behind a dangerous plot plunges Alec and Damaris together in an intimacy that melts their well-guarded reserve, proving that true love’s rich rewards may just be worth the risks.
A Summer Seduction
“Jocelyn,” he murmured, his arms tightening around her, and at that instant, she turned and slipped away from him, laughter trailing over her shoulder.
Alec started after her, his body thrumming with need, the thrill of the chase rising in him. She was white and silver in the moonlight, her gown fluttering behind her, dark gold hair streaming like a flag. Airy as a dream, she darted between the stones, always just out of his reach. He turned a corner, and she had vanished. He realized with a chill that the stones around them were grave markers.
Then her arms wrapped around him from behind, and her scent teased at his nostrils. Alec turned to her and claimed her lips, his hands sinking into the thick mass of her hair. Heat flared through him, his body hard and eager. She pressed up into him, her soft breasts flattening against his chest. He wanted her. Ached for her.
He lifted his head and gazed down into the huge amethyst pools of her eyes. Her alabaster skin gleamed in the moonlight, her thick black hair twining around his fingers. And in that moment he realized that she was not Jocelyn at all.
Thunder rumbled, and Alec jolted awake.
He lay for a moment, disoriented, the room unfamiliar, before his groggy thoughts gathered and he recalled that he was in an inn on his way to visit Lord Morecombe. Soft summer air wafted through the open window, stirring the sheer curtains, and thunder sounded again, low and distant. Alec’s body still surged with lust. Was it for Jocelyn, he wondered, or for Damaris?
Letting out an impatient sigh, he sat up and swung his legs out of bed. It didn’t matter. Either way, it was folly. Jocelyn’s place now was in the graveyard. She had never been his, not really. As for Damaris… His thoughts turned to the attractive young widow who was Lady Morecombe’s good friend. Hair thick and black as midnight… wide, expressive eyes of a deep blue, almost purplish hue, a distant look of cool amusement in them… an enticingly curved body that seemed to beckon a man’s hand.
Alec shook his head, as if to dislodge his thoughts. However alluring the lady might be, Damaris Howard was not for him. He had not, he reflected, made the best of first impressions upon her, storming into Gabriel’s house six months ago and launching into a fistfight with him. He had compounded his sins by being rude to the lady, flatly refusing her offer to show him the way to the village. Pride was a failing of his—an overweening pride, some might say—that disdained help as equally as it did pity or contempt.
After that inauspicious beginning, Mrs. Howard had regarded him with a prickly politeness that bordered on disfavor. That fact would not have stopped him from pursuing her, of course, for Alec Stafford was not a man to avoid a challenge. But she was a lady and, what was more important, a friend to Thea, one of the few people Alec respected, which meant that Damaris was not a woman with whom he could casually tumble into bed. And Alec was not foolish enough to be interested in a woman in any other way. Whatever mawkish feelings of love and marriage had once glimmered in him had died with Jocelyn.
He shoved away from the bed and strode to the window. The sheer curtain billowed out, brushing over his naked flesh, and he shivered once again, just as he had in his dream. There was no moon in the sky; it was growing close to dawn and the sky had begun to lighten.
Sleep, he knew, had been thoroughly chased off, so he turned away and began to pull on his clothes. It was less than a day’s ride to Chesley, where Gabriel Morecombe now lived with his new wife and the baby boy they had adopted. If he set out now, he could reach the village by midafternoon.
By the time the sun came up, Alec was well down the road. He stopped for breakfast and to rest his mount, but as the miles passed and the village of Chesley grew closer, his pace quickened and his stops were more and more infrequent. He was not sure where the restlessness that had plagued him the last few months had come from, but it was becoming more and more familiar. It seemed as if no place contented him for long now. After visiting Chesley for young Matthew’s baptism, he had returned home to dutifully escort his sister to London for the Season. A month later, boredom had sent him ricocheting back to Northumberland. But, unlike in the past, he had not been content at Castle Cleyre either. The days had seemed long and empty, the nights dull, until finally he had decided to return to the city early, making a side trip to visit his friends the Morecombes along the way, as if he had not just visited them in February.
It was odd behavior, he knew, but perhaps a man just grew bored when he reached a certain age. Or perhaps once Jocelyn had been found and he had been freed from his long, uncertain period of waiting, he simply no longer knew what to do with himself.
He came over a rise and saw Chesley before him, the Cotswold stone buildings gleaming a pale honey in the midday sun. In the distance, on the far side of the village, the square tower of St. Margaret’s rose bluntly into the sky. It surprised him to feel his spirits rise. It was here that he had learned the grim truth about Jocelyn, not only her death, but the full measure of her deceit. She had been lost to him more than a year at the time, but he had still stubbornly clung to some small measure of hope until the events at Chesley. The village should hold naught for him but sorrow and loss, but instead he had a certain fondness for it.
He nudged his horse into a trot and was soon at the outskirts of the village. He passed the Blue Boar, where he had stayed last Christmas. When he had come for the baptism in February, Gabriel and Thea had welcomed him into their home—but Jocelyn’s leaving had set the two men’s friendship on a perilous path, and it had been only tentatively restored last winter. So he hesitated now as he rode past the inn, thinking he should perhaps stop and claim a room there. Instead he pushed forward. The road that led out to the Priory went past Damaris’s home, and it would be only polite to call upon her… but better sense prevailed, and he continued to Gabriel’s home.
The footman who answered the door at the Priory was quick to bow and usher him inside. Just as the servant turned to lead Alec to the drawing room, there was a high-pitched squeal, followed by a peal of laughter, and a small child ran out of the great hall. His chubby legs were spread wide for balance, as were his arms, and the skirts of his gown were tucked up into his swaddling band to keep him from tripping. A gleeful expression lit his face. Alec’s heart clenched almost painfully in his chest. Behind him came a tall, slender woman dressed in a fashionable gown of sprig muslin. She, too, was laughing, her large expressive gray eyes alight behind her spectacles. Her cheeks were flushed, and several strands had escaped from her upswept reddish-brown hair to curl in an unruly fashion around her face.
The baby came to an abrupt halt when he saw Alec standing in the entry, and for a moment Alec thought that the child’s laughter might turn to tears of fright. Alec was a tall, even imposing figure, and there was a certain fierceness, he knew, in his ice-blue gaze and angular, strong-boned face that did nothing to soften his appearance. More than once, children had turned and run to hide against their mothers’ skirts when they met him. Matthew Morecombe, however, was apparently made of sturdier stuff, for after that brief pause, he grinned, let out a piercing shriek, and ran forward, holding up his hands to Alec. Alec gazed down at him in bemusement, not quite certain what he should do.
“Rawdon!” The woman hurried forward as well, now beaming at Alec. She let out a laugh. “You must pick him up, you know, or he will not give you an instant’s peace.”
Alec bent down and somewhat gingerly placed his hands on either side of the child’s waist, lifting him. Somehow Matthew settled naturally into the crook of his arm, curling his dimpled fist into the lapel of Alec’s coat. The boy was heavy and soft in his arm, smelling faintly of milk and lavender and child, and something in Alec’s chest went loose and warm. The baby looked down at the woman as she stopped before them, and he let out another happy crow.
“Yes, you like being up there so high, don’t you?” She beamed at the baby, then focused on Alec. “I am so happy to see you. Gabriel did not tell me you were coming; I shall have to scold him.”
“No, pray do not; I am the one at fault. I beg your pardon, Lady Morecombe, I did not write to warn you. I was on my way back to London from home, and I decided on the whim of a moment to pay a visit to my godson.”
There was a flash of surprise, quickly hidden, in Thea Morecombe’s eyes, and Alec flushed, deeply aware—though his hostess was too polite to comment on the fact—that the village of Chesley lay a good deal off the road from Northumberland to London.
“Well, we are excessively glad that you did,” Thea said with a warm smile. “But I thought we had agreed that you must call me Thea. We are, after all, almost kin, surely, since you are Matthew’s godfather.”
Alec smiled back at her, the harsh lines of his face softening almost imperceptibly. “I am honored. Thea.” Despite holding the child in his arm, he executed a precise bow. Matthew gurgled with delight at the movement and dug his fists more tightly into Alec’s coat. “But only if you will call me Alec in return.”
“Alec!” A tall, dark-haired man came striding toward them, grinning broadly. “Whatever are you doing here? It’s devilish good to see you.”
“Gabriel. Thank you. I fear I have dropped in quite uninvited.” Alec moved toward his friend, reaching out to shake the hand Gabriel Morecombe offered.
“Nonsense. You always have an invitation extended to you, whenever you should wish to take it.”
It felt quite natural to stand here with Gabriel—they had, after all, been friends since they were fifteen years old—but there was still a touch of awkwardness as well, for it was hard to forget the estrangement which had kept them apart for over a year. For a moment, Alec found himself at a loss for something to say. Then Matthew leaned forward, babbling and holding out his hands in a grasping manner to Gabriel.
“Are you leaving me, then?” Alec asked, amused. “Traitor.”
Gabriel chuckled and plucked the child from Alec’s grasp. “He is hopeful that my appearance means teatime is at hand.” He bent and nuzzled the baby’s neck, sending him into a paroxysm of giggles.
“I think, rather, that he is hopeful it means a bout of rolling about the floor with you,” Thea corrected drily, coming forward and reaching out to take the baby. “Come here, you, it’s time for your nap.” She smiled toward the men. “I shall take Matthew to his nurse and give you two an opportunity to visit.”
The two men stood for a moment watching her sweep up the stairs with the baby. “You must be very happy,” Alec said quietly.
“I am indeed.” The familiar white grin flashed in Gabriel’s face. “I hope that someday you will know such happiness.”
Alec smiled wryly, an expression he had perfected for countering such statements. “Alas, I fear I am destined by nature to be a bachelor.” He did not glance at his friend; Gabriel was one of the few who knew how much he had once hoped to deny that fact.
“I would have said the same myself a year ago,” Gabriel responded cheerfully. “Before Thea opened my eyes.” He gestured toward the rear of the house. “Come. Let’s wash away the dust of the road, and you must tell me how you are.”
They strolled down the hall to Gabriel’s study, chatting as they went. Alec was surprised at how easy it was to fall back into their old pattern of conversation. But then, Gabe had always had a gift for putting one at ease, a talent Alec had never had or even understood how to acquire. It was fortunate, he thought, that he had little need for it.
“I feared I might find you had removed to London or Morecombe Hall,” Alec commented as he settled down in a comfortable wingback chair. The darkly paneled study had a faint, pleasant scent of leather and tobacco.
Gabriel shrugged one shoulder negligently as he handed his friend a glass of Port, then sat in the chair across from him. “We spent a month at the Hall so Matthew could see his grandmother. And a while in London. Thea loved the plays, and I have never spent so much time inside bookstores and museums in my life.” Gabriel looked faintly amazed at his own actions, and Alec had to chuckle. “But, quite truthfully, we missed the Priory. And Chesley. I have become utterly domesticated.”
“It seems to suit you.”
Morecombe nodded. “Thea says Matthew has me wrapped around his little finger. ’Tis absolutely true, I fear. She does not mention the fact that she does as well.”
Alec was aware again of that feeling in his chest, a peculiar piercing mixture of pain and delight. “I could see Jocelyn in Matthew’s face.” He did not add that he had seen Ian there, too. Best not to think about that.
Gabriel’s eyes turned sober at his words, and he nodded. An awkward silence fell over them. Matthew’s mother, Jocelyn, was Gabriel’s sister, and when she had broken her engagement to Alec, running away from all of them, Gabriel had blamed Alec. It wasn’t until Matthew had shown up in Chesley, abandoned in the village church and discovered by Thea Bainbridge, the vicar’s sister, that the truth had come out. Pregnant by her married lover, Jocelyn had accepted Alec’s proposal but, in the end, had been unable to go through with the charade. She had fled to the Continent to have her child and had lived there until finally, dying of consumption, she had returned to England to entrust her baby to her brother’s care. She had not lived to bring Matthew all the way home, but everything had worked out finally and, as it turned out, the baby had brought Thea into Gabriel’s life as well. Married not long after Christmas, they were raising the endearing child as their own.
Alec shifted in his chair. “How does the rest of Chesley fare? The Reverend Bainbridge? The squire and Mrs. Cliffe? Mrs. Howard?” He tossed out the last name casually and turned his eyes down to the drink in his hand.
Gabriel glanced at him, and a flicker of amusement touched his eyes. “Thea’s brother is as ever. He will doubtless want to fill your ear with an article he read about Hadrian’s Wall. I fear he finds me sadly lacking in the qualities he would wish in a brother-in-law; I told him I had visited you at Castle Cleyre several times yet not once had gone to look at the wall.”
Alec chuckled. “That would, indeed, be anathema to him. I shall have to call on him. A scholar wrote me, asking if he could dig on my property for bits of some Roman encampment. I suppose I shall let him; I thought Bainbridge might wish to visit when he is there.”
“Good Gad. You will have a friend for life in Daniel if you do so.” He paused, watching Alec’s face as he went on. “We must have a dinner party while you are here. ’Tis too bad that Mrs. Howard is not in Chesley.”
Alec was aware of a distinct sense of disappointment, but he was too well schooled in concealing his thoughts to reveal it. “Indeed? I am sorry to hear it. I am sure that Lady Morecombe must miss her.”
“No doubt. But she will not be gone long—merely a trip to London. Shopping, I understand, was the driving factor.”
“Ah. Well, pray give her my regards.”
“Of course.” A mischievous light glinted in Gabriel’s eyes. “A beautiful woman, Mrs. Howard.”
Alec shot a sharp glance at his friend, but he had never been immune to Gabriel’s humorous bent, and after a moment, he chuckled. “Oh, the devil take you! I am not interested in Mrs. Howard.”
Gabriel made no answer, but the skepticism was clear on his face.
“I’m not,” Alec reiterated. “I can appreciate beauty without planning to acquire it.”
“Mm. And yet, how often are you taken with a work of art and do not purchase it?”
“If money were all that was involved, trust me, it would be a different matter,” Alec retorted. “But I fear that the price of a lady like Mrs. Howard would be far too high for me.”
The lighthearted humor dropped from his friend’s face, and Alec knew that Gabriel realized all too well what lay behind Alec’s disinterest in pursuing a lady of quality. Alec glanced away; he had no desire for any man’s regret or apology, still less for his pity.
“Well, we shall do our best to keep you entertained,” Gabriel said easily. “Even without the charms of the lovely Mrs. Howard. Come.” He set aside his drink and stood up. “Let me show you up to your room, else Thea will scold me for not giving you a chance to rest after your journey.”
“Of course,” Alec agreed, rising to his feet and following him. It made no difference that Mrs. Howard was not in town. He had come here to see his friends and his godson. Dreams did not matter in the light of day.
Gabriel was true to his word and kept his friend well entertained. In the country, it seemed, one could whip up a dinner party on a day’s notice, and though the squire’s family, the vicar, and a retired colonel were not exactly sophisticated, they were a convivial lot who, at least, were not too urbane to be amused. As Gabriel had predicted, Daniel Bainbridge was rendered almost speechless with delight at the prospect of getting to dig about in a Roman ruin, and he insisted that Alec come for tea the next afternoon to chat about the proposed visit.
But in truth, Alec derived the most amusement simply from being with baby Matthew. The sight of Matthew’s sunny face never failed to warm him and he found that if he held the lad high over his head, Matthew burst into a cascade of giggles. Sometimes it was as if a spectral hand clutched at his heart when he looked at the son of the woman he’d once loved.
Best of all was when, as now, Matthew came running at Alec as fast as his chubby little legs could carry him. Alec squatted down, his arms out to meet Matthew, who, much to Alec’s surprise, planted a wet, sticky kiss on his cheek.
“You look quite natural holding him,” Thea told him with a smile.
“Do I?” Alec raised his eyebrows. “I cannot imagine why. I can’t remember ever holding a child before.”
“No? I suspect it does not require a great deal of practice, only willingness. I knew scarcely a thing about them before Matthew.”
“He changed a number of lives, didn’t he?” Alec murmured, looking down into the baby’s wide blue eyes.
The nurse came to take Matthew up for his nap. Alec found himself oddly reluctant to hand the child over, but it was time to take tea with the vicar. He excused himself to Thea, and since it was a pleasant summer afternoon, he decided to walk through the ruins of the old abbey rather than ride his horse the long way around to the vicarage.
The Priory, where the Morecombes lived, and St. Margaret’s Church, on the opposite side of the ruins, were the only buildings remaining intact from the large convent that had once lain there. The cloisters and various outbuildings were now nothing more than a few partial walls and jumbled heaps of stones. Beyond the ruins lay the graveyard of the church, and seeing the stone markers, Alec was reminded of his dream the other night, in which he had run after Jocelyn through the gravestones. He thought of how he had caught and kissed her, only for her to turn into Damaris in his arms.
He pulled himself from his reverie and realized that he had come to a complete stop, lost in thought. He was utterly alone, with only the sturdy old stone church looming before him. On impulse, Alec turned toward the church instead of continuing across the little bridge to the vicarage.
The ancient wooden door closed firmly behind him as he passed through the vestibule into the sanctuary beyond. It was silent inside, light filtering in through the stained-glass windows lining the outer walls, casting soft colors across the high-backed wooden pews and ancient stone floors. The church, like many other old churches, was laid out in the shape of a cross, a shorter pair of arms thrusting out to either side just before the altar.
Alec drifted into the small chapel on the left side. It was partially separated from the rest of the church by iron fretwork and contained only a few short pews. Against the far wall, beneath the windows, lay two stone sepulchers of a long-ago lord and his lady, both topped with recumbent effigies. They were washed in the faint blue and yellow light streaming through the stained glass. On the wide wall near Alec stood a statue of St. Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of love, which that same medieval lord had taken from its place in Wales, along with a Welsh wife.
Damaris had recounted the legend to Alec when they were in the church for Matthew’s baptism—how the lord had credited the saint with winning his lady love for him and so had brought the statue home and built the chapel in her honor. Since that time, according to the local lore, prayers to the saint were granted if one prayed with a true and loving heart. Alec was not certain exactly what that entailed, but he noted that two candles burned in the votive stand beside the statue. Clearly someone believed.
He moved closer to the statue and stood for a moment gazing down at it. It was rough and obviously quite old, with a chunk missing here and there and a decided crack running through it. Yet there was something soothing about the crudely chiseled face, a look of peace, even love. Alec turned and sat down in the pew, gazing out across the church at the baptistry, which lay in the opposite short arm of the sanctuary. He thought about the day in February when he had stood there at the ornately carved baptismal font.
Gabriel and Thea had stood next to him, the baby in Thea’s arms, arms and legs waving about, as Daniel Bainbridge had read out the solemn words. And across from Alec, on the other side of the font, had stood Damaris Howard. She had worn a velvet cloak in the wintry chill of the church, and its dark purple had deepened the intense color of her eyes. He remembered gazing at her, his eyes caught by the thick gloss of her black hair, the creamy softness of her cheeks, the lush curve of her lips. He had, he recalled, indulged in decidedly unholy thoughts about her in this holiest of places.
He wondered what Damaris was doing in London. Shopping, Gabriel had said; that was no surprise. Every time Alec saw her, she was dressed in the height of fashion. No doubt she was visiting the theater and the opera as well. Dancing at parties. Perhaps if he’d remained in London, he would have run into her.
Not, of course, that that mattered.
He moved restlessly on the hard wooden seat, leaning forward to brace his arms on the pew in front of him and lean his chin on his crossed hands. He thought of the baptism again, of Thea’s and Gabriel’s faces, alight with love. The love still burned in them. Of course, it had been only months, but Alec had no doubt that the emotion would continue. They would raise Matthew with happiness and care; likely there would be siblings to join the boy. They would grow old together.
He could not help but feel a twinge of envy. He did not begrudge them their joy. Indeed, he felt himself warmed by it, rather like standing beside a roaring fire. The fact that his own life seemed dry and empty by comparison was not their fault. Once, for a brief while, he had hoped that his own future would be as bright, as sweet, as theirs, but of course such hope had died almost as soon as it was born. Now, for just a moment, before he could cut it off and lock it away, Alec felt the sharp ache of his solitary life, a brief, desperate something that yearned for that joy in his own life.
Letting out a small noise of disgust at his maunderings, he pushed himself up from the seat. It was folly to think this way. There was nothing wrong with his life; indeed, many would envy it. He was the Earl of Rawdon, and it was time to stop drifting about like a cork on the ocean. Time to get back to London. To his life.
He walked out of the church without looking back.
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