—RT Book Reviews
“An elegant new voice in historical romance!”
—New York Times bestselling author Meredith Duran
Desire waylays the plans of a man with a mysterious past and a woman with an uncertain future, in Susanna Craig’s unforgettable series set in Georgian England.
After her much older husband dies—leaving her his fortune—Charlotte Blakemore finds herself at the mercy of her stepson, who vows to contest the will and destroy her life. With nowhere to turn and no one to help her, she embarks on an elaborate ruse—only to find herself stranded on the way to London. . .
More than twenty years in the West Indies have hardened Edward Cary, but not enough to abandon a helpless woman at a roadside inn—especially one as disarmingly beautiful as Charlotte. He takes her with him to the Gloucestershire estate he is determined to restore, though he is suspicious of every word that falls from her distractingly lush lips.
As far as Charlotte knows, Edward is nothing more than a steward, and there’s no reason to reveal his noble birth until he can right his father’s wrongs. Acting as husband and wife will keep people in the village from asking questions that neither Charlotte nor Edward are willing to answer. But the game they’re each determined to play has rules that beg to broken, when the passion between them threatens to uncover the truth—for better or worse. . .
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To Seduce a Stranger
By Susanna Craig
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Susan Kroeg
All rights reserved.
Bath, May 1797
Despite a gift for spinning stories and building castles in the clouds, Charlotte Blakemore had never gone so far as to imagine that her late husband would leave her a fortune.
It soon became clear that her stepson had not imagined it either.
Robert, the new Duke of Langerton, stepped forward and twitched the will from the bespectacled solicitor's hands, as if he suspected the man of fabricating. Neither of them actually said anything, however.
The incredulous squeak — "Vraiment?" — could have passed only Charlotte's lips.
"Yes, truly," said Langerton, lowering the parchment and fixing her with a hard stare.
It was not as if Langerton had been left nothing. As heir to the dukedom, with all its properties and a considerable income attached, Langerton was now one of the wealthiest men in England. Still, it was quite clear he objected to the fact that his father's substantial private fortune — whatever was not entailed or otherwise bequeathed — was to be divided among him, his sisters, and Charlotte. And not equally, either. Charlotte was to receive half.
Without saying anything more, Langerton returned the will to the solicitor and resumed his seat. A feeble ray of morning sun poked between the dark curtains covering the library window and picked out a few silver threads in his dark hair. Although he was not yet forty, the strain of the past few weeks, beginning with his vocal disapproval of his father's second bride, had aged him.
The remainder of the will's terms — gifts to the servants, sundry personal effects to those who would treasure them — passed by without comment. Charlotte hardly heard them. Sitting stiffly beside her, Langerton no doubt imagined she was calculating the interest on her inheritance. The thoughts flitting through her head were actually closer to a disjointed prayer of thanksgiving, however.
Thank God she would not have to return to her aunt.
Not that her father's sister, Baroness Penhurst, had been cruel, exactly. But no one who knew the woman would call her kind. Bad enough that James had to sow his wild oats with a Frenchwoman, Charlotte had overheard her lamenting more than once. Did he have to saddle me with the baggage? "The Earl of Belmont's natural daughter," people called her when they were inclined to be polite. Which they rarely were.
"That's far more than you would be entitled to receive by dower rights alone." Langerton's voice broke through her ruminations. The solicitor was stuffing papers into his worn leather case. "You must be pleased."
Charlotte drew herself up. "Nothing about your dear father's death has brought me pleasure, Robert."
His lip curled. Did he really expect her to address her stepson as Your Grace?
"Next you'll claim you were madly in love with him."
George Blakemore, fifth Duke of Langerton, had been gentle and caring, and Charlotte might honestly have answered yes. She had loved him, in the way one loves a sweet, grandfatherly man — fitting, since she was just four-and-twenty and he had been well past seventy when he had proposed. No one had been more taken aback by his offer than Charlotte, not even her aunt, who had done her best to dissuade her old friend from this act of madness — kindness, he had corrected when he and Charlotte were alone.
Lady Penhurst always was a right dragon, George had told her with a laugh. No need for you to live under her thumb forever, Lottie.
No one had negotiated marriage settlements on her behalf. Aunt Penhurst had refused to attend the ceremony. Perhaps it was an inauspicious beginning for wedded bliss — but bliss had been beyond Charlotte's expectation. It was enough that the exchange of vows in Bath Abbey just a few days after Easter had ushered in six weeks of the closest thing to peace she had ever known. Six weeks, broken by his heart seizure. Not the first he had suffered. Sadly, however, the last.
"Where will you go?" Robert asked, taking up the position behind the desk once the solicitor had vacated it.
"London." A note of wariness crept into her voice. "Your father's will —"
"Blakemore House is a residence of the Duke of Langerton." As he spoke, he began to rearrange various items — the inkstand, a paperweight, his father's seal — with a possessive hand. "And I do not intend to share it with the fortune-hunting daughter of a French whore."
Long years of practice had taught Charlotte how to disguise what she felt — fear, dismay. Even joy. Although her feet itched to fly from the room, away from her stepson's smirk, she refused to give him the satisfaction. "Fortunately for you, you needn't. Your father specified the house was to be mine."
"You have at best a lifetime interest in the property, to be clear," he corrected, crossing his arms behind his back and looking her up and down. "But if I were you, I would not put a great deal of faith in the promises of that particular piece of parchment."
Her hard-won composure deserted her. "You mean to — to —?" As sometimes happened when she was distressed, the English words flew from her head, leaving only French, and that she would not speak before him again.
"Fix my father's mistakes?" Robert supplied in a mocking attempt at helpfulness. "As best I can. There can be very little doubt that he was not thinking clearly when he married you. To say nothing of his state of mind when he rewrote his will."
Her lips parted on a gasp. "How can you be so ... so cruel?"
"To you? Nothing so easy, ma'am," he said, making the last word sound like an insult.
"To your father," she corrected. "To the memory of a decent, generous man. You would have him called mad merely to serve your own selfish ends?"
A dismissive flick of one hand. "The damage is already done. Since your hasty marriage, he's known far and wide as a crazy old fool. The words are whispered behind every drawing room door in Mayfair, tossed about like dice in a gaming hell. How you must have plotted and connived to pull off that marriage," he said with a shake of his head, as if reluctantly impressed. "But the world knows it for a farce, Charlotte."
"A farce? How dare you suggest —?"
"I suggest nothing. You convinced a doddering old man to sign his name in a parish register. Can you prove he knew what he was about? No," he said, answering his own question. "Because he did not. Then you persuaded him to leave an exorbitant sum to some person he believed to be his wife," he continued. "But given his mental state, your marriage was invalid from the start. Now it's up to me to restore the natural order of things."
The natural order of things. Spiteful dukes and mean-spirited baronesses on top. The Charlottes of the world on the bottom.
"Such a ploy will only humiliate the family and tarnish your father's memory," she said, lifting her chin and striding from the room. No matter Robert's accusations, she was a duchess. At the doorway, she paused. "I will pray that time tempers your grief enough to make you see it for the foolishness it is."
He stepped within arm's length and fixed her with a narrow-eyed glare. A chill scuttled down her spine. She might have thought he meant her harm — if she could imagine him dirtying his hands with the effort. Should she call a footman? Or the butler? Would they dare to act against the Duke of Langerton if she did?
In the end, however, he waited only long enough to force her into betraying her own nervousness. She giggled. And when she attempted to stifle the sound, a satisfied smile curved his lips, and he slammed the library door in her face.
Then, and only then, did she allow herself to run — down the corridor, up the stairs, and to her bedchamber.
"Was it as bad as you'd feared, ma'am?" asked her maid, Jane, from the dressing room.
"Worse." Charlotte paced to the window and looked down on the garden. Just two weeks ago she had sat beside her husband on that very bench and admired the spring blooms. Now, they had already begun to fade.
"Never say His Grace left you with nothing?"
"If only he had, Jane, I might be better off. Instead he left me so much that his son grows vindictive. He means to forestall my claim to any inheritance by contesting the will ... by contesting the validity of my marriage ..." Without conscious thought, her eyes darted to the perfectly made tester bed in the center of the room.
The sight of it catapulted her back to her wedding night, when her new husband had stood beside her on the threshold to this room, patted her hand, and told her she had no cause to feel apprehensive. I will not disturb your rest, Lottie dear, he had told her. And he had not — not that night, nor any other.
She had not exactly been saddened by the discovery he did not intend to share her bed. Certainly nothing her aunt had told her had given her cause to look forward to what happened between husband and wife. And the late duke had been an old man, hardly the stuff of any girl's fantasy. Not that she ever permitted herself those sorts of fantasies.
Still, she had felt a pang of something — something for which she had no word, either in French or English — when he had brushed her knuckles with dry lips and wished her good night before retiring to his separate chambers. She had always been so very lonely, especially at night, when the house grew still but her mind did not.
She had let herself imagine that, perhaps, married life would be different.
Entering from the dressing room on silent feet, Jane must have caught the direction of Charlotte's gaze for she said only "Oh," in a quiet, knowing way.
Jane knew how things had stood between her mistress and her husband, of course. Such matters could hardly be kept from one's personal servants. How many others suspected the truth? Could Robert somehow use it as evidence against her? The late duke's mind had been perfectly sound, but all in her marriage had not been as it should have.
"They won't do you as they did poor Lady Cleaves, will they?" Jane asked.
With fingertips suddenly turned to claws, Charlotte gripped the windowsill for support. She had forgotten all about the Cleaves affair, although it had been on everyone's tongue just over a year ago. Lord Cleaves had accused his wife of infidelity and announced his intention of suing for a divorce. Lady Cleaves had countered with a petition for an annulment on the grounds of her husband's impotence, claiming their four-year marriage had never been consummated. Detailed accounts of the proceedings had been published in the papers and laughed over in none-too-hushed tones. Aunt Penhurst, for one, had enjoyed snickering over the stories of Lord Cleaves's failed attempts to demonstrate his capacity in front of the officers of the court. Meanwhile, Lady Cleaves had been forced to undergo physical examination by two midwives to prove she was ... What had been the legal term bandied about? Ah, yes: virgo intacta. Then, Charlotte had not been quite sure what it meant.
Now, however, she knew all too well.
Heat swept up from Charlotte's chest, crossed her cheeks, and settled in the tips of her ears, leaving her fingers cold.
The world could laugh at her if it chose. She was half French, the daughter of a loose woman. She was used to derision, used to suspicion. She had never cared a jot for the world's good opinion, and she knew she had done nothing to earn its censure.
But she could not bear to think of anyone laughing at a man who had been so very, very kind.
As she stared down into the greenery, her eyes unfocused, a movement on the edge of the garden caught her attention. Someone in dark, nondescript clothes, those of neither a servant nor a gentleman, stood almost hidden by the stone pillar at the corner of the fence. Perfectly positioned to see both the house and the mews. A thief? But it was broad daylight.
"There's a man," she began, turning away from the window and gesturing behind her.
Jane nodded eagerly and came forward. "Now, that's the ticket, ma'am. A man. There must be some chap you took a fancy to, once upon a time. Someone you'd like to ... That is, you might be a widow, but you're still just a bride at heart, and a bride has a right to look forward to — well, you know what I mean. No one would have to be any the wiser."
Charlotte's jaw had grown slack as understanding dawned, so that it was an effort to muster a sound. "Jane!" She giggled nervously once more — drat it all. Dropping her gaze to the carpet, she said, in what she hoped was a scolding tone, "Surely you aren't suggesting that I — that I indulge in —?"
"Me? Why, 'twas you who mentioned a man," said Jane, leaping to her own defense.
"Yes. A man. Standing just outside the garden gate." Charlotte nodded toward the window, still unable to raise her eyes. "I wonder what business he could have there?" Jane hurried across the room to take a peek, then shook her head. "Not a soul about, ma'am. He must've moved on."
Charlotte looked again, but Crescent Lane was empty, just as Jane had said. She scoured every cranny she could see from the window before pushing away and turning back into the room. What foolishness. Robert's threat had made her jittery, that was all. She had nothing to fear from some poor fellow out for an afternoon stroll. Probably just the kitchen maid's new beau.
"We are going to London, Jane," she announced, straightening her shoulders. Duchesses did not slouch. To say nothing of giggle.
"Ma'am?" Jane spun away from the window and looked her up and down. "Now?"
Fortunately, her trunk was ready. She had come to her marriage with only a few dresses, and those had been replaced too soon by a new wardrobe — of somber black crape, rather than the lavish spring gowns her husband had urged her to buy. The old dresses had already been packed away.
Into a valise Jane placed a few necessaries and a black gown almost identical to the one Charlotte was wearing. A second valise was soon filled with a similar set of items for Jane, all that would be needed for a night — or perhaps two, given the rapidly lowering sky — on the road.
To the first bag Charlotte added one final item: a battered volume of French poetry that had belonged to her mother. That connection alone would have been enough to make it precious to her, of course, but of greater practical interest were the banknotes now tucked inside. Interleaving the book's thin pages was everything that remained of the pin money she had been granted on her wedding day. Six weeks ago it had seemed an exorbitant sum. Now, however, if Langerton had his way, it might be all that stood between her and an ignominious return to Aunt Penhurst.
If she would even be willing to take Charlotte back.
When the footman arrived to carry down the trunk, Charlotte placed her bonnet on her head, lowered its lacy black veil over her face, and strode from the house. Jane followed, a valise in each hand.
By the time the driver stopped to change horses at a coaching inn east of Chippenham, the fine morning had indeed turned to rain. The inn yard was a slurry of mud, as travelers either hurried to depart before the weather got worse, or lingered in hopes of improvement. Charlotte and Jane picked their way to the door of the inn and were shown to a private parlor to wait.
From the window, Charlotte watched as people darted among the carriages, their faces hidden beneath umbrellas or the brims of hats, the brighter hues of servants' livery contrasting sharply with dull-colored, sensible travel garments. Everyone eager to get to the place they belonged.
All except Charlotte, who had never really belonged anywhere.
Under the eaves of the stable, one man stood apart, not hurrying to get out of the weather but looking up at the windows of the inn. A man in a dark, nondescript coat. Despite the distance between them and the blur of raindrops against the window, she felt certain it was the same man she had seen outside the garden that morning.
And he was watching her watch him. Her heart battering against her breastbone, she forced her suddenly frozen fingers to release the curtain. It swung back into place, leaving only a square of muslin where the reflection of her face had been.
An awful suspicion began to form in her mind. Had her stepson ordered her watched?
She shivered now as she had not allowed herself to shiver when his cold eyes had skimmed over her in the library. Robert would stop at nothing to piece together a suit that might keep her from inheriting. Whatever information this stranger could gather might easily be twisted into evidence of her bad character, proof that she was not the sort of woman a duke would choose to wed. At least, not if the duke in question were in his right mind.
Excerpted from To Seduce a Stranger by Susanna Craig. Copyright © 2017 Susan Kroeg. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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