Griffin Nash, Earl of Devonwood, wants to believe that he's seducing Miss Emmaline Farnsworth out of protectiveness for his young brother. After all, if his brother is convinced that the tantalizing professor's daughter is unworthy of his trust, perhaps Teddy will lose all interest in such an inappropriate choice for his station.
But in truth, something else motivates Devonwood: a scintillating vision he's had of a future tryst with the lovely Emmaline. A vision too realistic to be doubted--and too scaldingly passionate to be denied.
Yet Emmaline is not as easily tempted as Devonwood might have hoped--nor is she actually in pursuit of a wealthy husband. No, the real reason for her visit to the manor is something much more shocking. . . though being enticed by a dashing earl may prove to be a most welcome by-product of her schemes. . .
"A smart and sexy tale." --New York Times bestselling author Mary Jo Putney
<B.Praise for Mia Marlow and her novels
"Marlowe proves she has the ‘touch' for strong heroines, wickedly sexy heroes, and love scenes so hot they singe the pages." --USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Ashley
"Sensuality, sexuality, passion and mystery blend into a wonderfully entertaining tale." --Romantic Times
"Both historical and paranormal readers will love this crossover tale." --Publishers Weekly starred review
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Touch of a Scoundrel
By MIA MARLOWE
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Diana Groe
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDevonwood Park, 1844
Griffin rarely prayed in church. He used the time when everyone else's eyes were closed to sneak a peek at Sabrina Ashcroft's rapidly growing bosom. Every fourteenyear-old boy in the shire was fascinated by the new bumps sprouting on her chest. Ogling those lovely mounds sent urgent sensations coursing through his body, driving all thought of prayer from his mind.
But he talked to God now as he urged his gelding to the top of the rise.
"Let the delay be enough," Griffin repeated. His mount's powerful haunches bunched and flexed under him as he forced it up the steep incline. He didn't say please, to the horse or the Almighty. He was his father's heir, after all, and the earldom of Devonwood was an old and venerated estate.
A peer of the realm demanded obedience from those subject to him and gave restrained courtesy to his equals. Griffin loved and feared his father as much as the vicar admonished him to love and fear God. In his mind, the two had always been intertwined so tightly, he suspected the earl spoke to the Lord as if they were on the same footing.
But a sense of urgency crowded Griffin's chest and he began to add a silent "please" to his repeated prayer.
He reined in the gelding and surveyed the rolling meadows of his family's ancestral seat. A blur of movement caught his eye. He narrowed his gaze at the lone horseman barreling down the tree-lined drive toward the haphazard castle that crowned Devonwood Park. His gut clenched with apprehension.
The sun burst from behind a westering cloud bank, dazzling with unexpected brightness for so late in the day. The sweet scent of newly cut hay wafted over the hedgerows. Larks threw their songs to the heavens. It was a moment to gladden any lad, but the eerie sense of having lived through this slice of time once before stripped away any joy Griffin might have felt.
His palms grew clammy and a hard shell formed around his hammering heart.
He didn't have to wonder what news made the horseman push his mount to such a breakneck pace.
The Sending that morning had been so specific, he had dared break his father's rule and warned the earl about what his "gift" had shown him. Griffin hesitated to call it that, but his mother had insisted the ability to glimpse the future by touching inanimate objects was part of his birthright from her side of the family, inherited just as directly as his raven hair and storm-gray eyes.
The earl, however, didn't hold with such outlandish things. He thrashed his son every time he admitted to having a vision of the future, even though events always unraveled just as Griffin said they would.
Griffin was never able to anticipate what would set off the miasma of lights in his head. It might be an accidental brush against a scrap of leather or a piece of carved wood. A china teacup might whisper the future to him. When he and his father had shaken hands to say good-bye that morning, his father's signet ring had all but screamed what was to come.
Once Griffin had Seen what the morning held for his father, he'd pleaded with him to change his plans and remain in the country for another day.
"Ballocks!" his father had said, and then whipped him for "gypsy-ish nonsense." The punishment had caused a mere fifteen-minute impediment to the earl's schedule, so Griffin had slashed through the harness on his father's equipage with his belt knife. That set the earl's schedule back a full hour and earned Griffin the promise of another thrashing when Lord Devonwood returned in a sennight.
"I don't dare do it now," the earl had said through clenched teeth. "I'm too furious with you to trust myself to stop once I start."
Griffin didn't care. He'd welcome the beating if it meant his father would return. The only thing that mattered was undoing the future he'd Seen.
"Please let it have been enough time," he whispered as the future roared toward him with the horseman galloping toward his home.
Griffin dug his heels into his horse's flanks and charged back down the hill to meet the rider. Once he clattered over the drawbridge, under the portcullis, and into the bailey, he saw his mother had come out to greet the horseman. Baby Louisa was balanced on her hip and his brother Teddy clung to her skirts. Maman had never held with nannies or governesses for her little brood. It was yet another of her eccentricities that made Griffin wonder sometimes why his thoroughly conventional father had chosen her.
By the time Griffin reined in his horse and dismounted, the rider had begun his report.
"It was a deucedly freakish accident," the man said, twisting his cap nervously. "The earl's carriage collided with the mail coach at a blind corner. I'm sorry as I can be to tell you this, milady. The driver and the footman will mend, but Lord Devonwood was trapped inside the equipage and we had the devil's own time getting him out. His lordship ... died before a doctor could staunch the bleeding."
"But the mail coach should have gone much earlier." The words tasted of bile as they passed through Griffin's throat.
"It was delayed," the man said. "Had to replace a wheel just outside of Shiring-on-the-Green."
All the air rushed from Griffin's lungs. If he hadn't interfered ... if he had let his father leave at the time he'd intended ... His vision tunneled until he forced himself to inhale. The welts on his back from his thrashing stung afresh.
Tears streamed down his mother's face. When she wobbled a bit, he wrapped his arms around her to keep her upright. Since their mother was crying, little Teddy began to howl and baby Louisa offered sympathetic whimpers.
In that surreal moment, Griffin noticed suddenly how short his mother had become. The crown of her head fit neatly under his chin.
"What would ye have me do now, Master Grif-I mean, Lord Devonwood?" The rider gave his forelock a respectful tug.
Lord Devonwood. He was the earl now. The full weight of the estate and all its retainers settled onto his fourteen-year-old shoulders. Between one breath and the next, Griffin's boyhood slipped away forever.
"Ride to Shiring-on-the-Green and make arrangements to return my father's body for burial," he said, grateful his voice had not chosen that moment to break in an adolescent squeak. A pinprick of a headache began to form behind his right eye. It happened sometimes when he'd had a vision. This was the first time the onset of the migraine was so delayed. "Then call on our man of business in London and tell him to prepare an accounting of the estate within the week. There are things that require our attention."
He noticed he'd already adopted his father's habit of speaking of himself in the plural.
As he helped his mother back into the house, Mr. Abercrombie's lesson from last week haunted him. His tutor had told him that theologians and philosophers often debated whether the future is immutable.
"Does Fate or the stars or a benevolent God dictate the course of our lives?" Mr. Abercrombie asked. "Or do we pilot our own souls?"
Griffin had argued for free will, but it was a debate he would never join again.
After today, he knew the answer.
The future was fixed, whether by God or the devil or plain dumb luck. He'd tried scores of times to prevent the realization of his visions, but he'd never been able to change a single outcome.
Fate even used his interference. It was like trying to stop the wind. Pitiless time only swept him along, no matter how he struggled against it.
He resolved not to try ever again.
Chapter TwoLondon, 1860
Lord Devonwood halted beside the hydrangea to take a longer look at the fetching young woman seated on the stone bench. It's not every day a man finds a nymph in his garden before breakfast.
His full given name was Griffin Titus Preston Nash, but no one had called him by anything but his title, or its diminutive "Devon" since his father had died. He'd even ceased to think of himself by any other name. However, the young woman in his garden was comely beyond the common. His blood quickened as if he were still young Griffin, as if he were not weighed down with the responsibilities of a vast estate and all the lives dependent upon him for every morsel in their mouths and each coin in their pockets.
Women usually preened like peahens when presented to Devon since he was judged to be eminently "eligible" by the matrons of the ton. This lady was preoccupied with a sketchbook and completely unaware of his presence. He could indulge in looking his fill at her unassuming beauty without concern over whether someone would take note, calculate his interest, and hope to capitalize on it.
A bachelor who wanted to remain in that happy state couldn't be too careful.
The lovely woman in his garden was an unexpected windfall of distraction from the pounding in his temples. Devon almost blessed the grinding headache that had made him decide to take a turn in the fresh morning air before he sought his bed. He'd expected to be soothed by the scent of sweet lavender, the drowsy hum of bees in the St. John's Wort, and the patter of the fountain. The shaded alcoves of the garden behind his London town house eased his light-sensitive eyes. His quiet little Eden often relieved his suffering when he overused his "gift."
The alternative was turning to hard drink, which muddled his thinking, or opiates, which obliterated thought entirely. Devon was determined to resist those remedies as long as possible.
Fortune had been kind through the long night of gambling at his club. While he frequently lost money in the stock market, a deck of cards never lied to him. His gift of touch allowed him to make up shortfalls in the estate's balance sheet over a game of whist or poque.
Devon moved farther along the path and peered at the girl from behind the topiary. Instead of admiring the flora his gardener spent so much time pruning and fussing over, she focused on the statue of an inebriated Dionysus. Head bent, pointed pink tongue clamped between her teeth in concentration, she labored over her drawing.
Ever since it had been noised about that Queen Victoria was a dab hand at sketches and watercolors, every woman in England fancied herself an amateur artist.
But that still didn't explain the young lady's presence in his garden.
Devon moved around behind her, brushing past the roses to get a better angle from which to view her unobserved. A thorn nicked the back of his hand. He gave it a shake and brought it reflexively to his mouth to suck at the small wound while he eyed the supple line of the woman's spine. Her spreading skirts emphasized a narrow waist.
A single auburn curl had escaped her bonnet and trailed damply on her nape. Her tender skin appeared dewy and pink in the warm morning sun. He was surprised by the urge to plant a kiss on that spot, but tamped down the inclination at once.
Not that Devon was a monk. He was simply careful not to involve himself with the sort of woman who looked as if she might require a trip to the parson should a man take liberties. With her buttoned-down collar and crisply starched sleeves, this woman seemed that sort, even though the tight bodice displayed a full bosom.
But what man didn't prefer taking liberties when he could?
He moved closer so he could peer over her shoulder to see her artwork. She'd neatly captured Dionysus in every detail, even down to the arc of water spewing from the god's flaccid member into the basin of the stone fountain. Judging from the accurate rendering on the page, the lady possessed more than passing talent with a pencil.
And more than adequate understanding of male anatomy.
"You're blocking my light," she said without looking up.
Devon stepped aside so his shadow wouldn't continue to darken her page. He was treated to a clear view of her delicate profile. The slight upturn of her nose pleased him. It meant that while she was spectacularly pretty, she wasn't perfect.
Perfection was boring. And often demanding.
"The sketch doesn't seem to have suffered for my intrusion," he said. "You have an excellent drafting hand, if I may say so."
"You may." Her lips curved upward in a satisfied, feline smile over his compliment. "No harm done. I'm nearly finished as it is."
No harm done? Did she expect an apology when she was the one trespassing in his garden? Her flat accent and brazen self-possession betrayed her as a Yank.
"American, are you?"
She flicked her gaze at him and rolled her large brown eyes at his grasp of the obvious. "Born and bred."
An Englishwoman would require a formal introduction before starting a conversation with a total stranger. Yanks were incredibly lax about that sort of thing. Devon settled beside her on the bench. It was his garden, after all, and his head still throbbed in time with the blood pounding through it. He ought not to stand on ceremony, especially when the lady didn't seem to mind informality.
"It's not only the accent that gives you away, you know."
"Really?" Her attention was riveted back to the page, where she added some crosshatched shading to the god's musculature. "What else makes you assume I'm an American?"
English women of his acquaintance tended to have more angular features, even bordering on coltish. The apples of this lady's cheeks were sweetly rounded, and she had that snub-nosed pertness so often found in those from across the Atlantic. With wide-set eyes, full lips, and a delicate chin, hers was a thoroughly charming, almost pixyish face, but he decided it wouldn't be politic for him to say so.
Women were unpredictable when it came to masculine opinions on their appearance. Honestly, why would his sister ask if a particular pattern in the fabric of a frock made her look plump unless she wanted an honest answer?
Devon decided to settle for something safer.
"Your choice of subject declares your nationality, for one thing. An English miss would sketch the tea roses, not a nude statue," Devon explained as he studied her work. If the image was any guide, her knowledge of the male species was detailed and unflinchingly accurate. Perhaps he'd misjudged her on the basis of her severe wardrobe. This American miss might be entirely open to his taking a few liberties.
She fixed him with a direct gaze, her widening pupils darkening her eyes to the color of rich coffee. The effect was hypnotic.
A man might lose his way in those Stygian depths.
"Choosing to draw flowers instead of this magnificent statue speaks volumes about the insipid nature of the English miss," she said with conviction.
Devon stifled a chuckle. Even though he agreed with her assessment, someone had to stand up for English womanhood. "And yet tea roses are highly regarded on this little isle."
"No doubt, but lovely as it may be, a tea rose does nothing to engage the emotions, has no intensity of feeling. There's simply no potential for the drama necessary to true art."
"No? Suppose the flowers were presented to a lady who refused them and tossed them onto the garden path," he suggested, not that he put much stock in anything as ephemeral as a feeling. "Wouldn't that mean someone's emotions were engaged?"
"Point taken, but mere flora still can't compare to the seething possibilities in that statue. I mean, just look at him." She waved a slim hand toward Dionysus. An ink smudge and a slight callus marked the longest finger of her right hand. Evidently she was as well acquainted with a writing pen as a drawing pencil. "Dionysus is a study in contrasts, sublime and corrupt, physically strong and morally weak."
Not to mention that he was completely naked. "His state of undress doesn't distress you?"
"I wouldn't dream of fitting him with a fig leaf," she said without a trace of heightened color in her cheeks. "The beauties of the human form are not the least prurient."
Devon smiled. A woman who wasn't silly enough to be undone by the sight of a naked man. He'd lay odds she didn't feel the need to call a piano leg a "limb" either. She was a refreshing oddity. "Ah, but this Dionysus fellow isn't meant to be human, you know."
"No, but the Olympians were simply humanity writ large," she said, swiping at the deep auburn curl that had escaped her bonnet and fallen across her forehead. A few strands glinted copper amid the darker tresses. "Unless I'm mistaken, this statue is a replica of an ancient one, circa first century, judging from the attention to realism. It would be sacrilege to alter it. If the ancients had no compunction about portraying their deity in such a state, who are we to demur?"
A replica? Devon had paid the earth for the damned thing. The gong of pain sounding in his head grew louder. "What makes you think it's not an original?"
Excerpted from Touch of a Scoundrel by MIA MARLOWE Copyright © 2012 by Diana Groe. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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