With ruin and scandal around every corner, the Earl of Markham keeps a tight fist on his life and emotions. But blackmail now threatens his son’s inheritance and he must tread carefully to keep his world in balance.
Markham is forced to court and marry a vicar’s daughter, who is as spirited and wild as the countryside she loves. Her rebelliousness and stubbornness could dismantle his life, yet her fire illuminates his colorless world and could break the wall around his heart.
Lizzie Parker wants no part of the London Season. Her happiness comes from the village, caring for her father, and her beloved country life. Against her will, her father sends her London to find a husband, but she’ll not go quietly. She’ll do whatever it takes to vex the man who is her benefactor. The man who one time shattered her heart.
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Lizzie Parker just lost her virginity to her father's curate, Edmund Greene.
At least, that was the lie she was ready to tell, though it rotted on her tongue like rancid meat.
Her teeth chattered as she stared at the raindrops falling in her garden, so far unable to bring herself to go inside the cottage.
Nausea churned, but desperation took over.
The wind twisted Lizzie's skirt as several large rain droplets splattered around her. She fought back tears and started toward home. Rain thumped her shoulders and smacked her face.
Lizzie slipped in through the back door and pushed it shut against the wind, her nerves ready to shatter. The normally appetizing scent of stew turned her stomach. She clutched the folds of her drenched skirt, squared her shoulders and took a deep breath.
Her father entered the kitchen, his brown eyes hopeful, his gray hair smooth and combed. The sight of him deepened the ache in her gut, yet rage pounded in her breast. He didn't have a right to force her to do this, to lie to him, yet she would. Because she loved him with every ounce of blood in her body.
"Elizabeth, you are soaked," her father said. "Go upstairs and change, child."
"I ... I have to tell you something, Papa." Now, oh God, she must say it now, before he did something to make her change her mind. "I have been with Edmund."
"You went to his house to say good-bye?"
Lizzie nodded, then quickly shook her head. Her stomach turned. She would burn in hell for this. "I love him, Papa, you know I want to marry him."
His lips pursed, disapproval clear in his eyes. "We've discussed this, Elizabeth."
"But I don't understand ..."
"You don't want to understand. Edmund Greene is my curate. He has little means to take care of you. You deserve better."
Heat flushed her cheeks. "He will make me happy."
"You are too young to know what will make you happy."
Her body quaked again, but she couldn't go to London. She could not leave her father here alone.
"Papa, I didn't just go over to say good-bye. I ... I was with him." His eyes widened, but she must continue. "I feared I'd never see him again. You are sending me away and ..."
He slapped her face, the sting forced checked tears from her eyes. "Are you telling me that you have lain with the boy?" His voice rose until he regained ominous control. "Is this the truth?"
"I'm sorry," she sobbed, and rubbed her cheek, the pain a welcome ease to her guilt. "I know it was wrong and I will pay for my sin, but I ..."
Her father held his hand up. The grimace on his worn face caused a stab of pain in her gut. "Your plan was to force my hand, was it? Give me no option other than to have you marry that boy?"
"I love him. I don't want to go to London. I don't want to leave you." Tears threatened again. "Please."
He removed his coat and rested it on her shoulders. "You have made a grave error. This ploy, though more disgraceful than any of your others, does not change my mind."
Lizzie's head snapped up. "But no one will want me now."
"You have changed nothing with your foolish actions. I am not even certain I believe you." He sighed. "You will go to London as I instructed. Already you are two years past the appropriate age. Now, go up to your room and beg God to forgive you. Right now, I cannot."
But she didn't want to go upstairs, she wanted to run into the yard and scream to the heavens. Even giving her body to a man before marriage would not sway her father from sending her to London for the Season. She shuddered to think if she had gone through with her plan she may have permitted Edmund to take her virginity and then still be expected to marry a baron or viscount.
"I must see my guest to the door, Elizabeth. Go now."
"You have a guest?" she whispered. The blood drained from her limbs. Please, let it be the baker's wife with poor hearing or some old man who fell asleep on the sofa. Oh God, she never intended to embarrass her father. "Who waits for you in the front room?"
Lizzie edged to the open doorway. She must see who was here, who may have heard her ugliness when she had been faced with no other alternatives. Perhaps if they had, they may be able to see past the shame and understand her thinking. They could tell her father that she did not need a Season in London, that she was needed more at home.
Her father swept a wet strand of hair from her face. "Your escort and benefactor to London awaits my return. I wished to present you, but now I've no desire to do so. It shall be done another day."
Her escort and benefactor to London. Not someone who could sway her father's opinion, but the very person who would take her away on his behalf.
Already in a tangle of emotions, she considered retreating outside to the peace of the rain and her garden. But she could not curb her curiosity.
Lizzie inhaled a deep breath, stepped around her father's form and into the small room. If she must meet this person eventually, it may as well be tonight when her life could plummet no lower.
Lizzie's shoes squished her arrival. She stared at the tall man who stood in front of the fireplace, his dark head angled up at her mother's large painting.
"Lizzie, go, before he sees you dressed as such." Her father's whisper halted her stare, but curiosity did not stop her retreat to the hall. Who was the man in her front room? Why did the sight of his imposing frame remind her of someone she once knew?
But, no, that couldn't be possible.
"Go, Lizzie, now!"
She turned and headed for the stairs.
"Wait." The deep tone of a stranger's voice accompanied by the sound of heavy footsteps. Then, a heady, exotic scent wafted toward her. "I have waited long enough. I would prefer to meet Elizabeth tonight."
The voice, she'd heard it before. Its memory urged her forward. When she reached the bottom step, he spoke again.
"Let me see you, Miss Parker."
No. Not now. She couldn't face him now. Her clothes were soaked, her hair dripping, her nerves afire. "I-I must change."
"I cannot wait."
Lizzie held her breath. She didn't want to breathe in the scent of him, hear the deep utterance of his words. But neither did she want to run off like a coward.
Slowly, she turned toward him.
How was it possible? Now, six years later, he was more handsome, more striking. His features had chiseled into a man of maturity. The black curl of his windswept hair partially concealed deeper lines on his forehead. Lips, still full and promising, twitched, but she could not discern their intention. Time slowed as he stared at her openly with those dark eyes that raked her over as if she were horseflesh for purchase.
A tingle raced through her bloodstream and spread warmth to her core. Her knees weakened, breathing halted. She slipped into the spell which enveloped her years ago.
But she had been a fool to believe in fairytales. Fairytales fueled by her dying mother's assurances that one day Lizzie would marry Lord Markham. Fantasies of embraces in his protective arms and his soft whispers to soothe the unbearable passing of her mother.
But God determined the price for her dreams when her sister disappeared. Lizzie would not pay that price again.
A flush of temper raced up her neck and bloomed hot on her cheeks. This man destroyed everything she cared about. Nearly everyone she loved.
She forced herself to breathe, but no words formed again in her mouth.
Her father touched her elbow. "Elizabeth, you remember the Earl of Markham, do you not?"
He was not the true earl.
Evan Fielding, the ninth Earl of Markham, stared at the reward for his parents' poor timing and the clergyman's greediness. A vice constricted his ribs. A sharp pulse slammed at his temples. The Reverend Parker's daughter reminded him of the hell his life had just become.
And, yet, the wet blue dress clung to her young body and his rage transformed into desperate need. Two pert nipples broke the smooth plane of the drenched fabric. Her red hair hung down over her shoulders and enticed him to run his fingers through the dripping curls, then lick the rain from her freckled skin.
Damn the traitorous hardening of his flesh, the blaze alive in his veins.
The girl glared at him, her green eyes challenged him. Did she fear he'd overheard her scandalous conversation?
Oh, yes, he'd heard it. All of it.
He'd listened to every little detail of how she gave herself to a local boy, seduced him to avoid her season in London.
A suffocating tightness pressed against his lungs.
Markham shoved his hands in his pockets, his stomach coiled into a knot. He shouldn't have come tonight. He should have done more research, scoured the library for information, and investigated details that could prove the vicar's story untrue.
But, so far, he found nothing to dispute that he was born before Reverend Parker could legally marry his parents.
His son, Lucas, at Blackhawk Manor with his nanny, knew nothing of this mess. If Markham were to fail, Lucas would no longer have a title or inheritance. Money could not buy prestige nor repair a reputation. Markham must protect his son. He would not fail him again.
The arranged marriage would buy the clergyman's silence. But this spirited, headstrong girl could never be his countess. From her low status, to her rebellious attitude, to her unrefined looks, Reverend Parker's daughter could undo years of careful judgment and preparation.
"Yes, Papa," Miss Parker said at last. "I remember Lord Markham."
And yet she did not bow or curtsy. She did nothing but stand there, in her soaked dress, seduction in the making, a fierce glint in her gaze.
"Miss Parker," Markham replied, all emotion cleared from his voice.
She lifted her chin. "Elizabeth, but I prefer Lizzie."
He gave her another cursory glance. "Miss Parker."
At that, her eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms under her breasts. Markham swallowed as those tiny points lifted higher. He could think of little else but to wrap his fingers around those breasts and swirl his tongue over those pert nipples. How was it possible to be both enraged and aroused?
"Papa, may I go upstairs now and change?" She turned for the stairs again.
"Elizabeth, aren't you going to say goodnight to the earl?"
She stopped. Her long hair continued to drip on her dress, on her shoes, on the floor. But she said nothing.
Markham waited, as her father did, for the girl to utter a suitable response. But only the wind and rain rattled the panes and echoed in the room.
"Elizabeth?" Reverend Parker prompted, his tone rose. Her lack of social graces even troubled her father.
The girl looked at her father, determination written in her features. "Good night," she uttered through clenched teeth.
Miss Parker vanished up the stairwell. A door slammed and then he and the rector were alone.
Markham cleared his throat and willed himself calm. "The wolves in London will eat her alive."
The reverend rubbed his eyes. "Then you must protect her."
"She does not want to go any more than I want her there."
"Then you have something in common."
Markham groaned, frustration roared at his temples. "Why must this be the only way? Can nothing else please you? Wealth, land, servants? What else do you want? Certainly, there must be something else you would consider."
"My daughter will not marry some penniless boy, who like me, is the unlucky last son of an earl. She will not suffer through an illness without the financial means to secure a physician." The man closed his eyes, his color faded in the evening light. "Elizabeth is to have a life of privilege, a life that can give her anything she asks. She deserves more than this small cottage, more than a forgotten village."
"Why? Why does she deserve more than any other girl here?" Markham clenched his hands, forcing his frustration and anger into the tightening of his fist.
A troubled sigh echoed in the room. "More money may have saved her mother's life."
"I can give you coins, jewels."
"But that would not give us enough security. I've seen too many children throughout the years die from poor living conditions or ignorance. My daughter will have the means for whatever she desires."
Markham fought the anger throbbing in his skull. "I am not the man for her. I have been married once. I have a son. Besides, what if the truth of my birth came out? Then what would she have?"
"I won't let that happen and neither will you."
Of course, he wouldn't. He couldn't allow scandal to erupt. Lucas could not lose his place in society. Markham would not bring shame to his dead wife's family, nor would he permit the line to die out. He would not be the one to fail. Already he'd disappointed his father, he would not do it a second time. "Your dishonest behavior has trapped me."
Reverend Parker lowered himself to a wooden chair. "Yes, you would see it that way. But your father was the one to offer me the reward for my silence. I merely amended the treaty as my children —" he cleared his throat — "my daughter aged. It is God's plan."
"If it were God's plan then why did I marry Emily and have a son? I would have waited, as my father had asked me to."
"That was part of God's plan, as well. Perhaps to teach you humility. You have learned and matured since then, have you not?"
"What if Emily had not died? Then what? How could I marry your daughter?" He thrust a hand through his hair. "None of this makes sense."
Reverend Parker glanced upward, as if to the heavens. "I fretted over that, I will admit. But then she passed away and my concerns were unnecessary."
A rushing tide swelled in Markham's gut. "You prayed for her death?"
The old man did not flinch. "No. But I prayed for deliverance. God chose the manner in which to carry it out."
"You-you are the reason she is dead."
Hard, brown eyes lifted to him. "No. Only God can take a life. But had you listened to your father's demands, she would not have been heavy with your child."
Anguish crashed through Markham, nausea swirled. What the reverend said was true. It was his fault for defying his father's demands. His immature rebellion at what seemed unnecessary control led him to marry Emily. Without a given reason to wait on marriage, he heedlessly plunged forth.
Emily died giving birth to Lucas. The strain of the impulsive marriage brought his father to an early death. Markham blamed himself for both.
"God has a plan for us all," Reverend Parker continued. "One day you will see that marrying my Elizabeth is part of your plan."
"No," his voice lowered, "it is only a part of your own."
Markham turned back to the fireplace to calm his galloping heart. He needed a change in subject. Although he'd become skilled in suppressing all emotion, the thought of Emily's death at his expense always left him feeling raw.
He studied a painting which hung above the mantel. The ornately framed scene of a wildflower meadow exploded with untamed color and yet was uniquely alive with spirit. It reminded him of another at one of his estates.
"Who painted this?"
He heard a sigh behind him. "Elizabeth's mother. Lizzie has tried to duplicate it many times. But she is never quite able to, in her pursuit of perfection."
Markham raised his voice over the downpour, and turned back to the reverend. "How long has her mother been gone?"
"She passed away a few years after coming to this village. Her illness is what drove me to seek your father again."
"To guarantee a better life for your children?" At the reverend's nod, he continued, "Perfection does not always flourish just because there is wealth and prestige."
"I am aware of that. My own father was impoverished, but her chances are greater with you than with someone else from this poor village."
"Like your curate?" Markham watched the old man hang his head. "What of her story, her claim to have given herself?"
"It would not surprise me if Elizabeth has contrived the story." The Reverend Parker's voice grew quiet. "Be warned, she has a very strong will when it comes to doing something she does not want to do."
The girl's courage impressed Markham, despite her lack of judgment. Once she realized the error of her logic, he assumed she would have confessed to the lie. But like a true soldier, she refused to admit defeat. Unless, of course, she actually did give herself to the boy.
Excerpted from "Her Wild Heart"
Copyright © 2011 Leslie Dicken.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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