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The Seduction of Sarah Marks
A Those Magnificent Malverns Novel
By Kathleen Bittner Roth, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Kathleen Bittner Roth
All rights reserved.
Hampshire, England, 1857
Sarah was in bed with a stranger.
In a room bordering on the objectionable.
She lay on her side, her trembling fingers tucked beneath her cheek. If the galloping of her heart grew any louder, she was certain to awaken whoever he was before she could make her escape.
Who was this man?
Where was she?
Her befuddled mind tried to sort things out. Nothing came. Nothing at all.
Why can I not remember?
She had to get out of here, get out the door at least. Door? Where was it? There had to be one, but since she couldn't locate it by simply moving her eyes, it must be behind her. If only she could manage to slip out of bed without waking him. She moved a bare inch.
He flopped onto his back with a small groan.
Oh, Heaven help me! She lay rigid for what seemed an eternity. Whoever he was, he appeared to be fully dressed, in clothing befitting a gentleman — at least based on what she could see from the shoulders up, for his shirt was white and he wore a gray pin-striped waistcoat. She was fairly certain she was clothed as well since the blue sleeve on her bent arm looked like a day gown, not a nightrail, but at the moment, she dared not move anything but her eyes.
He shifted again, facing her, and she held her breath until his returned to soft, rhythmic whiffles. She studied his face, so close as to be nearly blurred. Rich brown hair curled over his forehead and around his ears while a fringe of dark lashes lay against chiseled cheeks. An aristocratic, aquiline nose rested above a set of full lips, slightly parted. Still no recognition.
She eased backward again, shifting her weight ever so carefully. Pressing one foot against the cold floor, she slid from the bed and backed away.
A board squeaked, sounding like cannon shot in the quiet room.
His eyes opened.
"Oh!" A quick glance at the door, and she scrambled backward, one hand flailing behind her.
He rose on an elbow. "What are you up to?" Despite the sleep in his voice, authority rumbled through it.
Afraid to take her eyes off him, she felt around for the door's latch. "Who are you?"
He cocked a brow, and his expression grew quizzical. "Are you quite serious?"
"Last I knew, I was Augustus Malvern, Lord Eastleigh." Remarkably clear brown eyes studied her. "Door's locked. Key's in my pocket."
"Where am I?" she croaked. "How did I get here?"
He scowled. "At the Golden Hen, near Hampshire. You don't recall?" When she shook her head, he threw back the covers and stood. His height and the breadth of his shoulders nearly swallowed the small room.
The room swayed — or was it her doing the wavering? She braced her shoulders against the door.
His booted feet pounded the floor, closing the distance between them. He wore his boots to bed? He paused before her and canted his head, puzzlement reigning in his regard of her. Reaching to her temple, he gently fingered a bump.
She gasped at both the pain and his touch, and craned her head away from him. Whatever had occurred, she feared him.
"Dear God," he muttered, and turning on his heel, strode to the window. Flinging the faded curtains aside, he backed off as a cloud of dust motes swirled about. He brushed at his shoulders, stepped again to the window, and clasped his hands behind him.
Despite the grime on the bubble-filled glass, the morning sun, still pink and fresh from its rising, shone through bright and clear. Off to the right, a rooster crowed. Lord Eastleigh turned an ear in that direction. "Let me get this straight. You do not recall where you are, or how you got here?"
"No ... no, I do not." Despite her faltering voice, she stiffened her spine and gathered courage.
"Have no fear, madam. I won't harm you." His voice had gentled, and for whatever reason, she wanted to trust his word. "And except for that nasty lump, which I did not inflict, none has come to you."
When she said nothing in response, he asked, "By any chance, do you know your name?"
She took in a breath and managed a strong voice. "Yes. Sarah Marks."
He whipped around, a deep frown furrowing his brow.
She touched the nasty bump on her head and hissed. "How ... how did I get here?"
"We rode in a hired carriage, which was overtaken by thieves. We walked here — or rather, I carried you a good deal of the way." His voice softened measurably. "Do you recall any of those events?"
Her mouth formed a silent, "No."
Fighting the panic trying to take root again, she perused the room. A dingy space, this. One window, an iron bed with a small, raw-wood table alongside, a few hooks on the wall — one holding a man's dark jacket and what looked to be a white cravat draped over its shoulder. A robin's egg blue cape hung over the back of the single chair in the room. A matching hat rested on its seat, while black kid gloves were stacked beside the bonnet. Tucked neatly beneath was a pair of black walking boots. Everything appeared well-made. The dress she wore matched the blue-sprigged muslin lining the cloak.
His scowl faded. "You suffered a blow when you stepped between me and the thieves —"
"Good heavens, why would I have done such a foolish thing?" She fingered her wound again.
"Folly, I would suspect." He lifted a brow. "Or perhaps you are so adamant regarding right and wrong, you could not stand to see someone's life threatened?"
She stared boldly at him while she fought to keep her chin from trembling. "I do not have the slightest idea how I would react, sir. In fact, I do not know if I am adamant about much of anything at all." Oh, her heart wouldn't hold out much longer — neither would her knees. "Please, sir. What can you tell me about me?"
Closing the distance between them, he reached out and swept back a tendril of hair that had caught at one corner of her mouth, grazing her cheek with his thumb as he went.
Lord, his touch was gentle, soothing in fact. And his scent. So clean. But an odd tremble moved through her. Any desire to lean into his hand dissipated. Instead, she stiffened and stepped away, her heartbeat kicking up. Something told her that it was not just this man, but all men she feared. Could that be why she'd left her home? "Please, do not touch me."
"Beg your pardon. I'm not much good at this sort of thing. Not that I've ever been in such an odd predicament before." The crease between his eyes deepened. "As I said, I mean you no harm. You are obviously suffering amnesia from the knock on your head."
"Me? Amnesia?" Dear blessed Mary!
He nodded. "You seemed in possession of all your faculties when you nodded off for the night, but now —" He shrugged a shoulder and made his way back to the window. "You're likely feeling as though pieces of your mind have been scattered to the four winds, but I caution you not to panic or things could very well worsen."
"How could you possibly know how I might feel?" Her words sounded like ice cracking.
He glanced over his shoulder, perused the length of her with those fathomless brown eyes, and turned back to the window. "I suffered from amnesia following an injury in the Crimean War, so I recognize the same in you. My own experience taught me to tread lightly while recovering, so as not to suffer setbacks. Or worse, lose the past entirely. There are chunks of my memory still missing."
Her mind a blank, Sarah nonetheless managed to maintain her dignity. "Tell me whatever you know. How we came to be traveling together. Where I am from."
She studied him for a moment and then said, "How did a man such as you, a lord, come to be traveling on a public coach?"
He turned and leaned a shoulder against the window's sash, making it impossible for her to see him clearly with the halo of sunlight surrounding him. "I rode in a hired coach because I was on my way to a ship for ... ah ... an extended holiday on the Continent."
"How did I come to be in the same conveyance? Was I on my way to the sea as well?"
"You were traveling by way of one of those over-crowded public coaches. You, and what I assumed was your companion, were bemoaning the dire conditions, and since we were headed in the same direction, I offered both of you my carriage. While you were an innocent, I'm afraid the other woman was not. She used being amidst your proper company to soundly dupe me."
"Was she the thief who injured me?"
He shook his head. "Her thieving friends lay in wait down the road a measure. Suffice it to say, you and I lost everything, including the hired carriage since the coachman teamed up with the filthy lot. He exchanged transportation for a cut of the bounty, the blackguard."
Her teeth slid over her bottom lip. "Did we turn back to the coaching stop from whence we came, or did we travel forward? Was where we came from my home?"
"Insightful questions." Eastleigh sketched a slight bow in deference, his curly locks tumbling over his forehead. "I overheard you tell the other woman that the stop where we encountered one another was your third, but you did not disclose to her your starting point." He scoured the small room with disapproving eyes. "And as for this rather questionable inn, we were nearer here than turning back."
"Then what?" She brushed her hands down her hips in an attempt to cease their quaking.
He eyed her movement. "Then we stumbled in here after dark. With a crowded inn, we were fortunate to capture the only room available." He looked around the sparsely furnished space with a look of distaste. "You are known below as Lady Eastleigh, by the by."
She glanced at the bed and her lips pursed. "You should have slept on the floor."
"Bloody hell on the hard floor!" He winced. "Beg pardon, a slip of the tongue."
Her hand crept to her throat. "But we are perfect strangers."
He paused as if in thought while regarding her through narrowed eyes. "You were not opposed to sharing a bed in order to get the rest we needed. We were both fully clothed, and it's not as if such an undertaking is an uncommon practice." He raked his hair back from his brow and heaved a sigh. "God knows if I'll be able to hire something out of here today that will give either of us a modicum of comfort. We have a long road ahead, so I thank you for not insisting I take to the floor."
"To where do you intend this carriage take us?" Renewed panic hammered her heart in her chest.
He rubbed the back of his neck. "To my home in Kent."
She gasped and fought to regain her composure. Perhaps parts of her memory had been misplaced, but her instincts told her that traveling alone with a man to his residence was highly inappropriate. "I could not go there with you, sir. It isn't done."
His regard of her intensified until her skin felt seared. "Then tell me, madam," he said in little more than a murmur, "where else am I to take you?"CHAPTER 2
From inside the carriage, Eastleigh scanned plowed fields bursting with the promise of spring. A dull beat at the base of his skull told him another megrim was about to roll through his head like a thundering herd of horses. He took in a long, slow breath and counted down from ten on the exhale, as he'd been taught.
What the devil had he been thinking leaving Easton Park? He had no business traveling even five miles from home, let alone trying to tour the Continent for three months with the idea of bringing home a bride. And painful as it was to admit, he was not ready to take on a wife, after all. Blast it all, Doctor Hemphill had been right. He rubbed at the back of his neck. Now he had to return home as quickly as possible and deliver the doctor yet another patient. "I am fully aware this might well be the worst day of your life —"
"That, sir, I would hardly know," she interrupted softly.
"Your pardon." He ran a sweaty palm down the side of his leg. Damn the headache. Another breath, another count of ten. No, he should never have left home. But he had to hold himself together at all costs. The responsibility sitting before him wouldn't know the first thing about getting them to Kent if he sickened. "Madam, I know what it is to awaken not knowing anything with regard to one's self. If you wish for no conversation, we shall have none, and I shall leave you to yourself for the duration, or we can muddle through this together. Lord knows, I'm giving it my best."
Fringed lids closed over those great blue eyes, and her head fell back against the squabs. A tear trickled from one eye and trailed into her hair. He checked an urge to reach over and wipe it away — along with her pain. Instead, he fished inside his coat pocket, retrieved a handkerchief, and gently tucked it in her hand.
She pressed the square of cloth to her temple and looked again out the window. "Do you know the road from here?"
"Not as yet, but I'm told we'll turn onto a main highway near noon. I know that particular route well."
"Will we reach your home today?"
"Hardly," he responded. "We've a two-day ride, but there are far better inns ahead."
"I refuse to be Lady Eastleigh tonight."
He couldn't help the chuckle. "You'll become my youngest sister, Rose."
"We shan't share the same room."
He lifted a brow. "And if there is only one available?"
She said nothing but overtly perused the interior of the carriage.
He patted the hard seat. "Indeed. This will serve, if necessary."
"Rose lives with you?"
Her chin lifted. "Is there a Lady Eastleigh at home?"
"God, no!" He nearly laughed. "Mum will act as chaperone."
She went back to staring out the window.
Lord, but even under duress, she was a lovely sight. "I should warn you of my family before we arrive."
Good, he'd managed to distract her from her predicament. He grinned. "Everyone should have fair warning of the Malverns."
She tilted her pretty head. "Tell me of your parents."
Oh, wouldn't he like to pull her onto his lap and murmur his response in her ear? "Father's illness confines him and my mother to their estate, which lies an hour north of mine. Mum, who lives with me, is actually my grandmother. Mum is ... that is —" Devil take it, he sounded like a schoolboy.
"She raised you?"
He laughed outright. "Isn't that a rich thought, but no. Mum is a bit ... shall we say ..." He scratched his head. "We aren't quite sure whether it's her age or the gin she tipples, but suffice it to say, her memory isn't much better than yours."
When her cheeks flushed, he could have kicked himself. "Sorry, ghastly turn of words." Bloody hell, where was her sense of humor? She'd likely not had much to begin with, since an amnesiac's personality rarely changed. "She's called Mum, by the by, because she fancies herself the Queen Mother and thinks my mother to be the Queen. Whenever Mother visits, we refer to her as Your Majesty. Pacifies Mum, it does."
He swallowed another chuckle. "When I sent a messenger to alert Doctor Hemphill, I also sent word to Mum. Hard to tell how you'll be greeted."
Slowly, she turned her head his way. "What an odd way of putting things."
A corner of his mouth curled. "Isn't it though, madam?"
She turned back to looking out the window.
They grew quiet for a long while, with only the rattle of chains and the grind of the wheels on the hard-packed road to keep them company.
Despite the dire circumstances under which they traveled, Eastleigh found himself once again occupied with the exquisite profile of the woman who called herself Sarah Marks.
Uncommonly refined for a country girl, she was. And prettier than anyone had a right to be, given the circumstances. Loose tendrils of flaxen hair framed a heart-shaped face one would expect to appear drawn. But she looked refreshed — and fragile as spun glass, yet pugnaciously strong.
"You stare at me, sir," she said, without turning his way.
"My apologies." Fighting an impulse to squirm, he rested his elbow against the window's ledge and thumbed the edge of his broken tooth — an old habit he'd long ago given up trying to break. How could he not help but look at her? Bloody hell, despite her prim and perfunctory manner, she captivated him.
A thought struck him that there hadn't been a mirror back at the inn. "Your eyes match your cape. Are you aware of their color, madam?"
Excerpted from The Seduction of Sarah Marks by Kathleen Bittner Roth, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2014 Kathleen Bittner Roth. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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