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CORNWALL, ENGLAND, SUMMER 1812
THREE YEARS EARLIER …
Lady Rosamund Westruther caught her first glimpse of Pendon Place from the carriage window and fell deeper in love with her destiny.
From this distance, the grand Elizabethan manor house loomed over the landscape, a massive expanse of gray stone with Gothic arched windows and crenellated turrets. Only the tendrils of deep green ivy climbing its walls softened the austerity of its aspect.
The house was gloomy, brooding, and utterly romantic.
A thrill of anticipation ran down Rosamund’s spine. Today would seal her fate as the future mistress of this house.
She fingered the engraved surface of a large gold locket that hung by a chain around her neck. She resisted the urge to open it. Cecily would mock her mercilessly if she caught her mooning over the tiny portrait of Griffin deVere, a gentleman she’d never met. Besides, his features were now so familiar to her, she shouldn’t need this keepsake for remembrance.
A giddy mix of delight, anticipation, and fear washed through Rosamund. Her guardian, the Duke of Montford, had chosen the heir to this fine Cornwall estate to be her husband. On this visit, she and Griffin deVere would pledge their troth, and she would set her slippered feet on the path she’d always been meant to tread.
She’d whirled in a flurry of excitement since the duke had proposed the journey, so eager to meet her intended husband she could have sprouted wings and flown to Cornwall, never mind the tedious carriage ride.
Would Griffin go down on bended knee when he paid his addresses? Surely he would. And give her a betrothal ring he’d designed especially for her. And perhaps even a posy of wildflowers he’d picked with his own hands. Or a poem, tied with a sprig of lavender …
Rosamund repressed a chuckle. The young gentlemen of her acquaintance wrote shockingly bad verse. But if Griffin should break into an ode to her left earlobe or some such thing, she’d keep a straight face, no matter what it cost her. For the thought was what counted, wasn’t it?
Perhaps … She squeezed her eyes shut as a thrill skittered right down to her toes. Perhaps Griffin might even take her in his arms. And kiss her. A sweet, tender, cherishing kiss. Oh, wouldn’t that be—
“Rosamund! Rosamund, I am talking to you.”
Startled from her daydream, Rosamund glanced down at her fifteen-year-old cousin, Lady Cecily Westruther. “What is it, dear?”
Cecily rolled her eyes. “Look at you! You are being sold body and soul to a man you’ve never met, and all you do is sit there, looking cool and composed and utterly beautiful. As if you visited any old acquaintance.”
“I’m glad I look cool and composed, for that’s the last thing I feel inside.” Rosamund gripped her cousin’s mittened hand tightly. “Oh, Cecily! What if he doesn’t like me?”
Cecily snorted. “Not like you? Everyone likes you, Rosamund. Even the duke holds you in affection, and his heart is as cold as an arctic winter.” She patted Rosamund’s arm. “Griffin deVere will fall desperately in love with you, just like every other gentleman you’ve ever met.”
Cecily leaned forward to gaze out the window, her dark ringlets bobbing beneath her bonnet. “Do you think it’s true this branch of the family descends from pirates? Perhaps there’s treasure buried somewhere on the estate.”
“I beg you not to mention pirates to the earl,” said Rosamund. “He is extremely proud, by all accounts.”
“I’m not afraid of any old earl,” said Cecily. “I can handle the duke, can’t I?”
Yes, Rosamund was forced to admit that even at fifteen, her precocious cousin seemed to sail without a care through the treacherous shoals of life as the Duke of Montford’s ward. How Rosamund envied Cecily her odd mixture of charm and audacity. She’d have Griffin’s grandfather eating out of her hand by teatime.
The clouds shifted, and a thick shaft of summer sunlight beamed down on Pendon Place. The pale gray stone of the manor house glittered with a silvery sheen. Suddenly the gloomy mansion sparkled with promise, transformed into a castle for a fairy-tale princess. Delight lit Rosamund from within. She could not wait to see inside her future home.
They rounded a bend in the drive, and the house was lost from view. The rich green landscape of a well-kept park opened up before them. A russet-colored doe lifted her head to gaze softly at the carriage as it rolled past. Rosamund recalled the charming legend about the herd of fallow deer that roamed the park at Pendon Place: If the herd ever died out, so would the deVere family.
The carriage finally crunched to a halt outside the front door. Rosamund’s breath stopped, most likely obstructed by her heart, which had jumped into her throat.
This was it.
The moment she’d been waiting for all her life.
* * *
Rosamund knew it was the height of bad manners to eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation. In ordinary circumstances, upon hearing the low rumble of male voices in her host’s library, she’d either make her presence known or leave.
But this time, extreme measures were called for. Upon their arrival at Pendon Place, none of the deVere family had greeted them. The Duke of Montford had ridden ahead of their carriage and must have arrived earlier, but he was nowhere to be seen. The housekeeper had shown Rosamund and Cecily to their respective bedchambers and asked them to wait.
Cecily had immediately disobeyed, slipping out for a ramble in the house and grounds, presumably to hunt for signs of buried treasure. A full hour passed before Rosamund gave in to impatience and made her own escape.
Rosamund sent a quick glance over her shoulder to sweep the empty corridor. Edging closer to the open library door, she pressed one hand to the green Spitalfields silk that papered the wall and canted her head to listen to the discussion within.
The drawling accents of her guardian, the Duke of Montford, met her ear. “Oliver, I realize the fellow is half-savage, but this is the outside of enough. Where the Devil is he?”
A deep grunt came from much closer to the door than she’d expected. Rosamund jumped and drew back, poised for flight. Then a voice she recognized as belonging to Oliver, Lord deVere, said, “Down at the stables. But he’ll come about.”
Rosamund bit her lip. At the stables? When he ought to be here, proposing marriage to her! There must be some mistake.
“What?” The duke’s tone could have frozen water. “Do you mean to tell me Griffin doesn’t wish to pledge himself to my ward? Do we waste our time here?”
“Not a bit of it!” blustered Lord deVere. “He’ll marry her, or by God, I’ll know the reason why.”
The implications of this speech had all the shock and sting of a slap in the face. Not only was he purposely absent, Griffin deVere didn’t want to marry her. Rosamund turned cold. All her joy and anticipation shriveled like autumn leaves.
Montford spoke. “As I am sure you’re aware, deVere, any number of candidates have been beating my door down for the right to wed Lady Rosamund Westruther. The Ministry—”
“To Hell with the Ministry! The boy is difficult, I’ll not deny it. This is a show of bloody-mindedness, but he’ll knuckle under. I’ll see to it.”
“I always found a thorough thrashing did wonders for disciplining Griffin as a lad.”
This voice, Rosamund did not recognize. A breathy wheeze punctuated his speech, as if the speaker were old or ill. “But the boy grew to such an ungodly size, by the time he was thirteen, I was obliged to have three men hold him down to administer the whipping. Two years later, I’d have needed a regiment, so I had his younger brother thrashed instead while he watched. It answered.” A long, weary sigh. “Shall I have my men bring them in?”
Rosamund gave a horrified gasp, then clamped her hand over her mouth. The duke had never favored corporal punishment. Why resort to violence when his mere words were such a powerful lash? But deVere might be of a different mind. Would she be obliged to intercede? Would they heed her if she did?
The third gentleman must be the Earl of Tregarth, Griffin’s grandfather. What a horrid, cruel old man he sounded. Pity filled her at the thought of Griffin’s sufferings, and those of his younger brother. Was that where Griffin had come by the ugly scar over his eye?
There was a pause. “That will not be necessary,” said the duke. “No doubt, we’ll see Griffin at dinner. In the meantime, we might as well discuss other business.”
“More matchmaking?” panted the earl, his tone laced with disgust. A chair creaked. “I’ll leave you two old women to your scheming.”
Rosamund turned on her heel and fled back down the corridor, the skirts of her muslin gown flurrying around her ankles. She’d changed into her best morning gown upon her arrival, of course. Such an auspicious occasion merited an exquisite ensemble. Purest white sprigged all over with primroses and a wide sash in the same sunny yellow.
She slowed to a more decorous pace when she reached the wainscoted hall. Crushing disappointment made her heart heavy as she climbed the stairs to the second floor. Why had she hoped so hard for love in her marriage when she’d been brought up from birth to expect nothing of the kind? Clearly, Griffin didn’t want her at all.
What an utter fool she was.
Ever since Montford had informed her of his choice of a husband for her six months ago, she’d awaited this first meeting in a fever of anticipation.
She’d even sent a miniature portrait of herself to Griffin. After several promptings, he’d responded in kind. No letter had accompanied the token. Not even a note of thanks for her own portrait, much less the poetic outpouring of devotion her romantic heart had hoped for.
A telling sign, but that had not daunted her, had it? She’d spent hours carefully transposing Griffin’s likeness onto a small tablet of porcelain cut to fit her locket. Each stroke of that tiny brush seemed to bring him closer to her. Like a besotted fool, she’d spent an age mixing the precise shade of arctic gray for his eyes. Such dreams she’d woven in her head!
Gaining her bedchamber, Rosamund rang for her maid. As she’d done fifty times a day, Rosamund clicked open her locket and gazed down at Griffin’s miniature.
She narrowed her eyes at her intended husband’s face. Oh, hadn’t she mooned and sighed over that portrait like a silly greenhead? As if it depicted an Adonis, rather than the fascinatingly ugly collection of features that stared out at her.
Griffin deVere was not handsome, not in the least. His large beak of a nose had obviously been broken, perhaps more than once; his jaw was uncompromising, bluntly square. The wild dark hair that grew thickly from his head moved beyond the fashionably windswept to the wildly cyclonic. A deep scar slashed his right temple, giving his eye a lazy, decadent cast.
Yet somehow, the very imperfection of his lineaments made them appear more striking.
He reminded her of the jagged cliff faces of the Cornwall coast, all weathered crags and treacherous angles. No softness to be seen, except in a shockingly sensual mouth.
No, Griffin deVere was not handsome. Decidedly not. But each time she gazed upon them, his looks pierced her to the core.
Was it only because she knew she was to wed him that this likeness exercised such a powerful effect on her? Perhaps. The portrait had spawned a thousand imaginings, nonetheless.
She’d planned and plotted. She’d lain in her bedchamber late at night, dreaming of him. Such wicked dreams they’d been. So wicked, her cheeks heated at the thought of them. She’d spun a perfect imaginary world around this man.
All for nothing. He didn’t want her. He hadn’t even bestirred himself to meet her, much less beg for her hand in marriage.
The sense of bewildered hurt made tears smart behind her eyes. She shook her head and forced them down. Weeping achieved nothing. This was no time for maudlin theatrics. She needed to act.
Rosamund’s hand clenched into an unladylike fist as latent anger flared. Regardless of wounded feelings, Griffin deVere’s deliberate absence insulted her.
How dared he dismiss her with such disrespect? She ought not stand for this cavalier treatment. If he began so poorly, how would he go on once they were wed?
The assurances of both her mother and the duke echoed in her mind: Marriage is a business arrangement between two families, no more.
No. They were wrong. Her marriage would be far more than a dynastic transaction. She’d be the best wife Griffin deVere could wish for. And before she was finished with him, he’d be the best kind of husband, too. She refused to give up her dream of a happy home for some rude, ill-bred man who preferred hobnobbing with his horses to wooing her.
After all, she was a Westruther, wasn’t she? Au coeur valiant, rien est impossible: “To a valiant heart, nothing is impossible.” Griffin deVere would soon learn that Lady Rosamund Westruther might look like a Dresden china doll, but her heart was as valiant as any of her forebears’.
The door opened. Rosamund snapped the locket shut and composed her features into a serene expression.
“There you are, Meg.” Rosamund smiled at her maid. “My riding habit, if you please.”
* * *
Griffin deVere emerged from the horse barn for the first time in the past God-knew-how-many hours and squinted against the brightness of the sunlight that showered the stable yard. Wiping his grimy, sweaty face on the sleeve of his shirt, he headed for the pump.
He stank of linseed oil and other secretions he’d rather not think about. His favorite brood mare had died during a difficult birth two nights before. The loss of her had gutted him. He’d battled hard to haul her back from the brink of death, but nature gave him a sound thrashing for his impudence.
At least he’d managed to save her foal.
Griffin had paired the infant with another mare in milk, a difficult process that required patience, persistence, and a grand dose of sheer brute strength. The mare had to be restrained and tricked by scent into accepting the foal and letting her drink. He’d monitored the fostering progress closely so that the mare wouldn’t hurt the foal as the infant suckled.
Now that the worst was over, he’d left the pair in his head groom’s capable hands. Griffin was hungry, he was tired, and the message his bastard of a grandsire had sent demanding his presence up at the house had done nothing to smooth the rough edges of his temper.
He bent over to duck his head under the pump. The gush of water tingled icily on his skin as it sluiced over his neck and shoulders.
If it weren’t for Jacks and Timothy, he’d have consigned his old Devil of a grandfather to Hell years ago. He’d give anything to tell Lord Tregarth exactly where he could shove his marriage of convenience, but he had little choice there, either. His siblings always suffered for his misdemeanors; if he didn’t knuckle under and betroth himself to Lady Rosamund Westruther, his brother Timothy would be yanked out of university and sent into the army. He couldn’t let that happen. Education was the key to a younger son’s future, as the old earl was well aware.
But even Griffin’s compliance had its limits.
Or had it? Lord, he’d give a monkey to see the old gentleman’s face if he appeared in the earl’s library immediately, as ordered, muck clinging to his boots and his outer garments caked with filth. Ready to meet his intended bride.
Griffin ripped off his coat, which had probably suffered the worst of it, and flung it over a nearby rail. His cravat, waistcoat, and shirt followed. Then he set to work on the pump again, scrubbing at his torso as best he might.
Well, he wouldn’t apologize for tardiness in a cause such as this. Dancing attendance on a spoiled Westruther heiress came a very poor second to his duty to a motherless foal. Besides, Lady Rosamund Westruther might as well learn now as later that Griffin deVere never danced, and certainly not to any female’s tune.
He cupped his hands to catch more water and dashed it over his face. Briefly, he wondered about this girl he was supposed to marry. He’d deliberately closed his ears and his mind to his grandfather’s lectures; he couldn’t remember what, if anything, the old Devil had said about her.
Not that it mattered one way or the other. No gently bred lady would entertain the notion of marrying him for longer than it took to assimilate the full, spectacular extent of his ugliness. One glance at Griffin’s monstrous bulk, and his delicate prospective fiancée would faint or fall into hysterics and beg the duke to take her home.
As soon as he’d heard of the scheme to bring them together, he warned his grandfather against it. Better for them to plight their troth by proxy if the union was truly the old man’s wish.
But he needn’t have bothered. The earl palpably anticipated Griffin’s humiliation. Relished the prospect, in fact. He must be very sure of the girl to have agreed to this meeting.
Perhaps it was as his grandfather said: The Duke of Montford would never allow the chit to draw back from the union simply because her betrothed was a gargoyle.
Suddenly, Griffin noticed something … or the lack of it. The bustling stable yard had fallen silent. Only the splat, splat, drip of water on the ground could be heard.
He released the pump handle and straightened, wiping the water from his eyes. Glancing up, he saw at least three stable hands frozen in place, as if turned to stone. His eyes narrowed. Was that a hint of drool slipping from the corner of Billy Trotter’s slackened mouth?
With a strong feeling he wouldn’t like what he was about to see, Griffin turned around.
He nearly shoved his head under the pump for another dousing. If the reaction of every other male in the vicinity hadn’t told him his eyes didn’t lie, he’d have believed her a vision conjured by exhaustion. But not even his imagination could have manufactured such a breathtaking piece of womanhood.
She wore a deep cobalt blue riding habit that fitted her form so precisely, his hands itched to shape themselves around those well-defined curves. The habit was in the military style, with elaborate silver lacing across her torso that drew the eye to a magnificent bosom and trim waist.
Griffin peeled his gaze from her mouthwatering form and forced it to her face. Eyes as blue as the heavens stared at him from beneath a sweep of thick black lashes and delicately arched brows. Rich golden ringlets escaped artfully from one side of her jaunty black hat.
The angle of that hat seemed unconscionably rakish. In fact, with her pearly skin and her adorable bow of a mouth, celestial eyes, and gilt curls, the set of that particular piece of millinery struck a jarringly saucy note. It was as if an angel stood before him, closing one eye in a sly, knowing wink.
Stunned as he was, moments passed before the truth crashed in on him, like Armageddon.
Lady Rosamund Westruther.
Bloody. Bloody. Hell.
Her lips moved, but he didn’t hear what she said for the pounding in his ears. His heart pumped. His mouth dried. His hands grew clammy. Blood abandoned his brain like rats from a sinking ship.
She’s not for you.
His skeptical, cynical mind fought for supremacy, but instinct, powerful and raw, drowned out the frantic messages from his brain. A low, animal hum swelled inside him.
I want her. Now.
The angel’s brows snapped together, and for the first time, he noticed a distinctly militant sparkle in her eyes.
She put up her chin and said, “You, there! Didn’t you hear what I said? Saddle me a horse, please. I wish to ride.”
Copyright © 2012 by Christina Brooke