Sparks fly when a runaway heiress bargains with a devilish rogue to escape a marriage of convenience.
No one would guess that beneath Violet Crenshaw's ladylike demeanor lies the heart of a rebel. American heiresses looking to secure English lords must be on their best behavior, but Violet has other plans. She intends to flee London and the marriage her parents have arranged to become a published author--if only the wickedly handsome earl who inspired her most outrageously sinful character didn't insist on coming with her.
Christian Halston, Earl of Leigh, has a scheme of his own: escort the surprisingly spirited dollar princess north and use every delicious moment in close quarters to convince Violet to marry him. Christian needs an heiress to rebuild his Scottish estate but the more time he spends with Violet, the more he realizes what he really needs is her--by his side, near his heart, in his bed.
Though Christian's burning glances offer unholy temptation, Violet has no intention of surrendering herself or her newfound freedom in a permanent deal with the devil. It's going to take more than pretty words to prove this fortune hunter's love is true....
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A proclivity for wickedness in his private life combined with his distaste for those he judged inferior rendered Lord Lucifer completely unsuited to her. That did not save the heiress, however, from her fascination of him.
V. Lennox, An American and the
Humor me, my lord, and tell me why you wish to marry my daughter." Griswold Crenshaw, American industrialist, sat behind his large mahogany desk, hands arrogantly folded over his stomach, cigar clenched between his gleaming teeth, eyes mere slits of condescension. He was a man secure in the knowledge that he held all the power in this negotiation.
It chafed that the bloody fool was right.
Christian Halston, Earl of Leigh, was accustomed to privilege. It meant that he was never required to answer questions or to even ask them very often. Information was gifted to him like tributes wrapped in golden paper. However, a wise man of privilege knew the benefit of a little humbling now and then, or so he had been told. Actively forcing his jaw to relax, he said, "I should think that is self-evident. Miss Crenshaw is-"
Crenshaw leaned forward and tugged the cigar from his mouth. "Beautiful. Cultured. Educated. Pardon me, my lord, but I have met my daughter, and I am aware of her many attributes. I am asking why you are interested in obtaining her hand."
It appeared the humbling was not over yet. Reasonable when dealing with a wealthy American and his daughter, Christian supposed. To be fair, he found the London Season to be one of the more inane rituals imposed upon modern man. It was all pointless chatter and insincere flattery that ended with men carrying home their brides. The whole thing could be condensed into a week if everyone were honest about the matter. It was a welcome revelation that Crenshaw wanted the truth rather than adulation.
Christian could deliver the truth. "I am rather interested in her fortune."
Crenshaw grinned, and the oxblood leather creaked as he leaned back in his chair, straining the springs. "Now we're making progress." Amber liquid swirled in his tumbler as he picked it up, indicating that Christian should do the same with the identical one he had been provided upon arrival a few minutes earlier. Christian complied and let the drink roll across his tongue.
"What has you in need of funds? Debts, my lord?"
The tone the older man used made it seem very much as if the my lord bit was optional. Did Christian even want this man for a father-in-law? No, he bloody well did not. He closed his eyes and imagined Violet. Beautiful Violet with her dark hair, creamy skin, chocolate eyes, and the piles of money that came with her. He could do this. There would eventually be an ocean between him and Crenshaw, after all.
"No debts." Those had been dealt with when Christian had inherited the earldom at age twelve. After finding out that his father had left his small savings to his mistress and his children by her, Christian had happily sold almost everything not bolted down or entailed and had never once looked back. That had taken care of his father's debts. Montague Club, the club he had opened with his half brother Jacob Thorne and a friend, the Duke of Rothschild, kept him comfortable.
Crenshaw's eyebrows shot up into his hairline. "Astonishing. I was led to believe that most of you aristocrats were . . . insolvent."
Christian stifled a cringe at this uncouth talk of funds. The man had every right to believe that, and there was a bit of truth to it. Almost every eligible noble in London had been clamoring for one of his daughters. Rothschild-not Sterling any longer since he had come to accept his position as duke-had ensnared the elder daughter already, though their engagement had not yet been announced.
"I consolidated some years back when I inherited. The family seat in Sussex and my home in Belgravia are in working order." Though they were in desperate need of repairs since the rents at Amberley Park barely covered the minimum needed to keep the place running.
"Well then, that's commendable." Crenshaw took another sip of his drink. "Might I ask why you require funds?"
"I own a small estate in Scotland. Blythkirk. I inherited it on my mother's side, and it holds sentimental value. There was a fire recently, so it requires extensive refurbishment." Years of practice made his tone sound benign. There was no hint of the fact that the home had been his refuge from a father intent on making his life hell. That its near loss had opened a well of pain that he would rather not face.
The older man grinned as if he did not quite believe a mere estate could be worth a wife. "Her settlement will provide for more than that, my lord."
Christian inclined his head in acknowledgment of that fact. "Indeed, it will. I am certain to make good use of it. While I am not insolvent, my ancestral estate, Amberley Park, drains my income. There are improvements I would make there. Furthermore, there are several investments I am interested in procuring. For one, I have a stake in-"
Before he could elaborate, Crenshaw said, "I am going to stop you there, my lord. As you are aware, I am a man of industry. As such, it is not enough that I find my daughter a suitable match, but that I look out for the interests of Crenshaw Iron Works in the process. To be very honest, there are more men who can fulfill the former than the latter."
Christian stared at the man. The rules of matrimonial negotiations were a bit outside his purview given that he had never considered obtaining a wife before Blythkirk's devastation, having been content to allow the earldom to pass to a distant relative, but he was almost certain that the bride's best interest should at least slightly outweigh those of a business. "Are you saying that you need a candidate who can bring business ventures to Crenshaw Iron Works?"
"That's it precisely. The ideal would be someone who meets with our Violet's approval, of course, but can present opportunities for Crenshaw Iron's expansion. Now that we are in the beginnings of setting up operations here, well, the world is open to us." His hands skated through the air in a smooth glide, mimicking the opening of a presumed gateway to the world. His eyes fairly glittered with greed.
"Like Rothschild." Christian knew that the main reason Crenshaw had encouraged and even pursued Rothschild's interest had been because of his title and the doors that title could open in Parliament. Being related to a duke willing to speak on Crenshaw's behalf would give the company nearly unfettered access to the railways being constructed in India.
Crenshaw's gaze narrowed. No one outside of the family was supposed to know that Rothschild had followed their elder daughter, August, to America. Christian, however, had been with Rothschild when he had made his mad dash to the Crenshaws' rented townhome off Grosvenor's Square to propose only to find his beloved ready to set sail. He had followed her to Liverpool and boarded her ship just in time. The ship was still en route, meaning no one knew how that had turned out, though Christian would guess the couple would wed very soon.
"Yes, like the duke."
"I have influence with my seat in the House of Lords," said Christian even as a hollow was opening up in his belly. He did not like the direction of this conversation. Crenshaw was a shrewd man. Access to Parliament granted, he would be looking for another advantage.
"Of course, my lord, and that is not inconsequential." A note of consolation had crept into Crenshaw's voice. The hair at the back of Christian's neck bristled. He was about to be refused. "We are very flattered by your interest."
"But you have another offer." A better offer. Christian clenched his jaw so hard that his molars ached. He did not intend to lose Violet to another man. She had fascinated him from their first meeting. If he was forced to consider a wife, then it would be her.
Crenshaw would have grimaced had he not been so accustomed to tense negotiations. Christian could see the urge lingering there in his expression. The corners of his mouth turned downward a small degree, and his eyes sobered. "Nothing has been finalized, but there is a tempting proposal on the table, yes."
"Who is it?"
"Well, now, I wouldn't want to give anything away until things are further along."
Christian searched his memory, trying to remember every man who had ever paid attention to Violet at the various balls he had seen her attend. The list was nearly endless, because she was an heiress and beautiful. Even though her older sister, August, should have been the talk of the season, and she had gained her share of admirers, it was Violet who had commanded the greater share of attention. Part of that was because Mrs. Crenshaw had been very active in taking Violet to every social event imaginable. Part of it was because everyone knew that August was a bluestocking and more concerned with working in the family business than getting married. In fact, she had publicly claimed to not be interested in marrying soon. Until Rothschild had changed that.
Violet, on the other hand, was more refined, more of what was expected in an aristocratic wife. There was a fire lurking beneath her cool exterior that she hid well. It made most believe she would be biddable. Christian knew that she would not, but he wanted her anyway. Perhaps because of that. He liked the way she met his gaze instead of demurring to him. She would challenge him, and if he had to face a wife daily, then why not rise to that challenge?
"What has he promised you?"
Crenshaw sighed dramatically as if he did not want to reveal more but had been given no choice. He smiled again, a practiced one meant to placate. "Mineral rights."
One of the many things Christian did not have to offer. "And you will give your daughter away for mineral rights?"
The smile did not fade, but it cooled so fast that it hardened. "You would have me give her away for less."
TouchŽ. "I would have you present all viable options to her and allow her to choose."
"You believe yourself to be a better option, my lord?"
"Naturally. I understand that I've gained a reputation of sorts. You must have heard the rumors." Women. Deviance in the bedroom. Violent brawls and general debauchery. Christian watched Crenshaw's face closely for any reaction to his boldness in bringing up that subject. There was none. Crenshaw was good at what he did. "The women," Christian elaborated.
Crenshaw gave a brisk nod. "Women can be dramatic creatures. I do not put much stock into their reactions."
"Nevertheless, I would assure you that the rumors exaggerate." For example, the gossips claimed his leg had been broken by an irate husband. That he had been set upon by the husband in a dark alley. As if he would be so careless. "Rest assured, I would never put your daughter at risk."
"I am not concerned with your fidelity. Violet will learn that the state of a husband's personal life is his own affair."
"Then it is purely material gain you are after?" The words were strangely bitter on his tongue.
Crenshaw laughed and rose, placing his cigar on the edge of a crystal dish. "I will be certain to keep your proposal in mind." Which meant that he wouldn't.
Dammit. Christian had no way to counter a bloody business proposal when he had only come armed with a title, charm, and an admiration for the man's daughter. He had wrongly assumed that the business need that accompanied marriage would be resolved now that the elder daughter's union was all but assured.
Christian got to his feet and waited for the predictable throb of pain that shot through his ankle to pass before gripping his cane and following Crenshaw to the door. "Then at least tell me whom I should congratulate for winning her hand."
Crenshaw tipped his head. "I cannot say."
Christian's grip on the silver hawk's head of his cane became a fist, but he forced a lazy tone. "You cannot say?"
"All right." Crenshaw grinned like a boy who had glutted himself on a treat. "I will merely say that you may visit and admire my beloved daughter later this summer in Devon."
Ware. Pallid and weak. It had to be him, because his family seat was in Devon and he seemed to always be at hand when the Crenshaw sisters were about. The man-child could not hold his own against a mildly strong gust of wind much less an angry suitor bent on having Violet. Unfortunately, the issue would not be decided in a bare-knuckle boxing match. More's the pity.
And to add insult to injury, Ware was a mere viscount.
"I shall look forward to it." Christian bid good day to the infuriating man and made his way to the front stairs as if he had not been rebuffed by a man whose recent ancestors had been scoundrels and thieves. There was no doubt in his mind that he would be the better match for Violet Crenshaw. The fact that his lack of resources was the only thing keeping her from being his grated.
Ware was a slug. The man wouldn't know what to do with a woman like her. He'd keep her hidden away on his estate, justifiably afraid that a better man would take her from him. Christian, however, would keep her in the light. He would allow her to host as many parties as her heart desired and enjoy as many theater outings as she wanted. She would dance and flirt and everything else that was socially acceptable to a newly married bride, but she would be his, and no man would be foolish enough to overstep. The reputation his fists had gained him would work in his favor there.
His old leg injury flared up on cold, rainy days but otherwise was a mere annoyance that caused a barely noticeable limp. He carried a cane for the occasions when standing excessively was necessary, or for the random uneven pavement or gravel walkway. Stairs were another problem. No matter how he tried, navigating them was slower than he would like and required the use of a well-mounted handrail. Today, however, he was grateful for the delay as he made his way down. It gave him time to notice the most beautiful and haunting voice he had ever heard. Hearing it instantly helped to dissipate his anger.