Read an Excerpt
In the Kingdom of Brahmors, there was a young prince who lived under the shadow of his father’s rule. He wished to stand up to the king, but the prince was young and did not have the strength needed to do so. The land around the kingdom was sad and oppressed and the heavens no longer rained down atop the grains that sustained the land.
—The Dragon of Brahmors
Elliott Taylor Wright, the Earl of Brendall, stilled when he heard footsteps. A squelching wet sound drew nearer to his study. Definitely not a usual occurrence. He flicked his watch open: ten after nine. No one came up to the castle if they could help it.
Martha, his housekeeper, would be gone from the main house for the evening. She always made sure to put his son down at eight. That didn’t mean it couldn’t be Jacob wandering around, finding some sort of trouble when the hour was still early. If that were the case, the boy would find his bed before long.
Not worried about unwelcome guests, Elliott stood from his wide desk, papers scattered over the surface. He stretched his back, then rubbed his eyes. He’d been looking over a stack of meaningless letters for too long and a break was in order, maybe even for the remainder of the night.
Striding toward the hearth, he picked up the poker and turned over the burning logs. The room was chilly and a bit damp. A lick of frost teased the air.
Elliott looked toward the door when another faint sound reached his ears. That was not his son; the tread was too heavy for a boy of eight years.
With the unlikelihood that the noise was his son … who could be wandering the castle? There were a handful of servants, but they rarely spent time in the main house this late in the evening. They had everything they needed at the keep—another building on the castle grounds. They left him well enough alone once the day closed. As he preferred.
It was possible someone was looking for him. And if that were the case, they’d know where to find him.
Except … the noise continued right on past his study.
He walked over to the door, slid it open soundlessly, and peered down the dimly lit hall.
A figure in white turned left at the end of the long corridor. The mud-caked hem of her skirts snapped with the twirl of her heel before she disappeared from sight.
Elliott stepped out of his study, shut the heavy door as silently as he had opened it, and followed the evening prowler. He was careful not to make too much noise. Padding quietly down the hall, he wondered when he should make his presence known. He was intrigued by the notion of having a trespasser.
Everyone who lived in the area was superstitious and thought his home to be haunted. Cursed since his mother’s death. Not a surprising assessment since his mother’s demise had come when she’d walked out into the sea; he was only a boy of seven at the time.
Elliott was curious as to why the woman was wandering his home. She would have passed the village long before finding her way here.
She was a tiny thing, probably a good seven or eight inches shorter than he was. Elliott studied her slender figure. Her hair was straggly and soaked right through; the pins had released a long braid to fall down to the middle of her back, and dripped a trail of rainwater down her skirts. He couldn’t make out the color, but he guessed a light brown.
Wetness clung to her like a second skin, making the line of her underthings beneath the worsted muslin visible to the naked eye. Not an ideal material for the unreliable climate in Northumbria. Her shoulders were narrow. Her waist couldn’t be more than what his two hands could wrap around.
Her skirt painted a muddy path along the hardwood floor with every step. The sloshing sound he’d heard earlier was still audible. It must have been coming from her waterlogged shoes. She carried a dripping shawl over one arm, a valise in her other hand.
She turned down another corridor. Did she not realize she was headed back to the entrance she’d come through? She mumbled something under her breath, but either he was too far off to make out the words or she wasn’t muttering anything intelligible.
With no desire to wander the halls of the great house all evening, and curious to know who she was, he called out to her.
“I see few visitors here, madam.”
He set his shoulder against the darkly paneled wall and waited for her to face him.
She froze at his comment and turned with more grace than he thought possible in her sodden, bedraggled state. Raising a dainty chin, she narrowed her eyes, making tiny wrinkles form between her brows. Her features were clearer now that she stood next to a lit lamp on the wall.
She resembled a drowned rat. Better yet, a mutt left out in the rain that had done nothing more than roll in the mud and filth for the better part of a storm.
“You!” She pointed a castigating finger at him.
He raised a questioning brow. Who did the little witch think she was?
She seemed to think herself mighty important and marched right up to him, her chest rising furiously with every breath. He said not one word more as she seemed to size him up, her nose scrunching as though she would bare her teeth in a snarl.
How dare she treat him like a lesser in his own home? In the house she trespassed in.
“How is it you’ve found your way here?”
On closer inspection, she was unusually nice to look upon. Her complexion was clear, freckles dotted across her nose and the upper portion of her cheeks. Her lips, he imagined, were full. Right now, though, she pinched them tightly together, either in anger or to keep her teeth from chattering since the edge of her lips held a tinge of blue. How long had she been standing out in the rain to come to this state? It occurred to him then that he should offer her the warmth of a fire before he sent her on her way.
“I walked,” she spat like a feral cat.
He pinched his lips tightly together and swallowed his offer. It was then he noticed her eyes were as rich and clear a green as peridot, with the slightest hint of gold, and as fiery as her nature proved to be.
“I had to walk fifteen miles because no one arranged for a carriage. I couldn’t even hire a coach to bring me this far.”
Who was this woman to act so familiar with him? He didn’t know her. Didn’t recognize her. Did she require a warm meal and a place to sleep until the storm passed through? If that were the case, she went about it strangely. Snapping and snarling at the master of the house was no way to win a free meal and lodgings.
He looked her over once more. Even though it was damaged from the rain, her dress was well made and of a fine, expensive material. A lady would have traveled with a maid. A ladybird on the other hand …
Elliott crossed his arms over his wide chest at that thought. He watched her gaze flick to the open throat of his shirt, trailing lower to the exposed skin of his forearms where his shirtsleeves were rolled up. Then she met his gaze head-on, weariness making her lids heavy. She had traveled far by the looks of it.
“Madam, do you always address your betters in such a fashion?”
“How—how dare you speak to me thus. I’m here on your invitation!”
That gave him pause, and he stood away from the wall. He hadn’t invited a woman up to the castle for more years than he cared to count. When he wanted the company of a woman he rode over to Alnwick, one of the larger townships. But he’d been too busy over the past few months to indulge in a good tumble.
His earlier thought that she might be a lady of the night would not quit his mind. She might do if she wanted to warm his bed. After a bath, this woman would clean up nicely.
Admittedly, she wasn’t his usual type. He didn’t like them to talk back.
But once the thought of this woman in his bed was in his mind, it stirred his blood. Before he even realized, he’d dropped his arms to his sides and took a step closer to her. Her eyes widened, smoothing all the creases from her pretty face.
He was half stiff when her hand came between them, pressing the tips of her chilled fingers against the exposed skin of his chest briefly before pulling away. The skin-on-skin contact did more than set fire to his arousal. Her cheeks and neck flamed a cherry red in the golden light around them. He wasn’t sure when he had last made a lady blush. It made his body taut with need.
Until she stuttered, “I—I’m the governess.”
Elliott forced himself to take a step away from her. What was he thinking? Better yet, what was he doing? Obviously he wasn’t thinking at all about the consequences of his actions.
It was his turn to narrow his eyes. The housekeeper had been corresponding with someone, but for some reason he’d pictured the new hire to be an old crone. Much like all the other older women who had taken on the impossible task of teaching his son. This young woman, who couldn’t be a day over her eighteenth year, didn’t fit his image of a governess. How could one so young take on the task seasoned women had failed at?
“You’re the governess?” The disbelief and disappointment were evident in his voice.
“Yes … I put an advertisement in the Northern Times last month. I was asked to start immediately.”
And she looked ready to hit someone—whether from his briefly untoward behavior or from her uncomfortable, bedraggled state was hard to determine.
Damn it. What was wrong with him?
* * *
Furious didn’t even come close to describing Abby Hallaway’s current state of mind. Livid, manic, enraged, and infuriated weren’t strong enough words, either. Violent was an apt description. For the first time in her life, she wanted to hit something. Or someone. To say that her first day of employment had not gone as planned was an understatement.
Never mind that Lord Brendall’s staff had not arranged for a carriage after she’d given Mrs. Harrow the precise time of her arrival into the Alnmouth railway station in a letter set for fast post more than a week ago.
Lord Brendall’s reaction to her had only made her night worse. The infernal man. If she wasn’t mistaken, he’d thought her no better than a common harlot before she’d blurted out the truth of her circumstance. She had barely kept herself from stamping her foot over his. At least he had the decency to take a step back with her admission.
Perhaps a gentleman hid beneath his wholly improper form. She’d never seen a man look and act so uncultivated in all her years. And to direct that incivility toward her was too shocking for words. The stark intent on seduction she’d read in his clear eyes was outrageous. Deplorable behavior on his part.
He stared at her in confusion. His eyes were rather striking: the lightest, eeriest blue she’d ever gazed into, like a cloudless summer day.
She had assumed he would be older—in his fourth or fifth decade. He wasn’t supposed to be near her own age. Or handsome for that matter.
Lord Brendall was a rather large man, bigger than her sister’s affianced, considerably greater in bulk than most she’d ever met in London society. It was quite an attractive feature, which she well knew she shouldn’t admit. He was tall, too. A couple of inches over six feet was her guess. His formidable height was topped with dark hair—black in the current lighting—that had the slightest wave to it. His face was shadowed with evening stubble, lines slashing down the middle to indicate that he probably had dimples if he smiled.
For some reason, she doubted he ever did anything so common as smile. The cleft in his chin was slight. His lips were thin, the lower marginally larger than the upper, and she imagined she could fit the curve of her thumb into the enticing dip at the center of the top one.
Then … there was the rest of him. There couldn’t be a more fitting description than: a bear of a man. She doubted she’d be able to wrap her hands around the thickness of his forearm. That thought had more gooseflesh dancing up her cold arms. His shoulders were wide, and they weren’t soft and squishy to the touch, either; she knew because she’d pressed up against him. The man was like granite, only much warmer.
She’d peg him for a common laborer if not for the finely cut shirt, trousers, and suspenders he sported and the air of command sucking all the warmth from the air around her. Her teeth chose that moment to chatter.
“I wrote to say I’d take the position immediately. As was requested of me. I sent a note for Mrs. Harrow to arrange for a carriage to meet me at the train station since I couldn’t make the arrangements myself on such short notice.”
He looked puzzled, the side of his mouth rising in a snarl-like fashion.
Abby had to close her eyes and take a deep breath as she counted to ten. She would not cry after the trials she’d endured on her trip north. She refused to show any emotion that made her seem weak. Yes, she was overset in her emotions—and rightfully so. It had been a very long, very cold day. The only thing that would make it better was a hot bath followed by equally hot soup.
“You didn’t receive my last letter, did you?”
He shook his head once. “I didn’t expect you. Nor do I think Martha knew of your imminent arrival.”
That was stating the obvious, since her feet and legs now ached something fierce from trudging fifteen miles through mud and rain. Her toes were icicles; she couldn’t even feel them. She’d never walked so far in one stretch before. Not in all her life. There were carriages to take a lady so far, or horses to ride. But no one had been willing to lend her a cart once they had learned she was in Lord Brendall’s employ. And who was Martha? Was that Mrs. Harrow’s given name?
“What is your name? I can’t recall.”
“Abigail. La—” She pinched her mouth together and bit the inside of her cheeks. She definitely was overtired to have almost let it slip that she was a lady. She inclined her head as a way of introduction. “Miss Abigail Hallaway.”
Finally, a gentlemanly reaction from him; he dipped his head in greeting. “Miss Hallaway. I’m sure you’ve concluded that I am Lord Brendall.”
“I have. I’ve been incredibly rude. Apologies, my lord.”
He said nothing in response. Just stared back at her. What a strange man he was. Did he not have the decency to ring for a servant or at least show her to her room? There was a curious glare to his eyes that left her speechless for some moments.
“I’d like to retire to my quarters, if you don’t mind. It’s been a hellish day.”
His head jerked up, and he seemed taken aback by her harsh wording. Wording a polite governess should never in a million years use. Curse her luck right now. Curse this whole day!
She gave an exasperated sigh, and added, “It’s been a difficult day, my lord. I am chilled right to the bone and liable to catch my death if we stand here and chat the remainder of the evening.”
She should guard her tongue better and be less snappish with his lordship, even if his manners left something to be desired.
“Yes, of course. You need to be shown to your room. If you require hot water, Martha keeps a pot on the stove in the kitchen. There is a hip bath tucked in there somewhere as well.”
Did the castle have no modern amenities? Was she really expected to bathe in the kitchen? Or as a servant, was she expected to use a common facility? She’d save that question for later. It was trivial when she was chilled to the bone.
“Thank you. Will you ring a servant for me?”
She’d consider having a bath just as soon as she got out of her wet clothes.
“There is no one in the main house. The staff lives over in the keep. I don’t make them work past the supping hour.”
No servants in the main house? And six people living close by did not count. In this monstrous place, how could that be? How did the master of the house function on a skeleton staff?
She was too tired to question why he didn’t keep serving staff on hand. If he could not pay them—or her—she’d know soon enough. The worst that could happen was her going back home to her sisters and having to advertise for another position.
“Will you please show me to the keep so I might settle in? I assume that is where I will take my room?”
Before answering her, his gaze traveled the length of her, from knotted hair to mud-covered skirt and feet, with a scowl. Then his sharp blue eyes met hers. Yes, she was an awful sight to behold, but it couldn’t be helped. She glared at him for his rude survey of her person.
He said not a word as he turned around, grabbed a candleholder from a long side table in the hall, and lit it against another candle’s flame.
“You’ll be staying in the main house.”
He had said all the servants lived at the keep. Was the keep fully occupied? Or was she expected to stay close to her charge? Did that mean the child’s nurse wasn’t at hand?
She was too tired to barrage him with so many questions. Too tired to utter another word. She cared not where she slept tonight, so long as it was warm and dry.
Without another word, he headed down the hall she’d just come from. He did not offer to take her lone bag, as most gentlemen would do. But she kept forgetting, she was the hired help now, not a lady. She’d left that honorary title behind two days ago.
Copyright © 2011 by Tiffany Clare