Lady Efrona Drake dreaded the upcoming house party hosted by her parents. Her father’s announcement that Lord Blakely Hansford, the marquess of Sudeley, would be in attendance caused a feeling of fear and loathing to curl in her stomach. Efrona realized her time had finally run out and her parent’s plans to end her six-year betrothal to the insufferable future Duke of Warwick would soon result in an unwanted and miserable marriage. Oh, Lord Blake was handsome enough, gorgeous even, but Efrona detested his pompous strutting and arrogant womanizing and total disregard for anything beyond his many mistresses and absolute life of leisure.
But the young man standing so still and composed in her father’s study was not at all the marquess she remembered, and rather than inviting those familiar feelings of disdain and disgust, Efrona felt her heart race and senses tingle when in his presence. What could have wrought such a change in the man? Was he merely toying with her and concealing his true nature with some twisted agenda in mind?
Plagued with the constant and uncanny sensation of danger, the marquess of Sudeley fought his growing attraction for the Lady Efrona. What had he gotten himself into? He was an impostor, and he was playing with fire. But after a second attempt on his life, the marquess realizes he must do all he can to keep Efrona safe even if it means exposure and with it, the sure knowledge that he will never be able to call her his own.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.55(d)|
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Cheltenham Castle, England June, Year of Our Lord 1819
Lady Efrona Drake was twenty-one and had been betrothed to Lord Blakely Hansford, the Duke of Warwick's only son since she was fifteen. And to top it all off she hadn't seen the man since the Lehigton's summer house party when she had just turned seventeen. Oh, he was handsome she had to admit and she suspected young ladies fawned over him with his extremely tight-fitting coat and trousers that provocatively revealed a good deal of his figure, and she shuddered to think she had once — albeit being only thirteen at the time — thought him gorgeous, until that is, his true pompous and eccentric nature showed itself. She thought herself much wiser now. Plus, rumor had it that he had a mistress. She had informed her father, the Earl of Chedworth, no more than four months earlier that she would never marry the man, which brought on a fearsome row. His shouts still echoed in her ears. Angry words spewed past a sneer that twisted his features and let her know that a powerful peer had little use in a daughter, except for the match she might someday make. But she had not relented; little good that it did.
Efrona settled upon the window seat and kicking off her slippers drew her stocking-clad legs up under her cone-shaped skirts as she rested her forehead against the window pane. She gazed dejectedly out upon the farm fields spread out before her. A narrow dirt road meandered over rolling hills through the little village of Seven Springs that seemed almost to grow out of the landscape. Its weathered Cotswold stone glowed honey colored midst the green and brown countryside dotted with lavender fields bursting in flower.
What had put her in this present sullen mood was what her father had casually informed her at breakfast: Her mother Lady Chedworth was to have a house party here at Cheltenham Castle, her father's country estate, and Lord Blakely Hansford, Marquess of Sudeley, had been invited. She could expect his arrival within a matter of days ahead of the party guests. This information had been met with a glower and stony silence on her part, which, of course, her father patently ignored. It was all contrived her mother's house party. If Mohammad wouldn't come to the mountain ... then her father — more likely both set of parents, would see to it that he did. She was sure it hadn't been strictly Sudeley's initiative. If it was up to him she was sure he would stay away until ... well, she shrugged. Which was fine with her, she hadn't minded, being snubbed that was — she really hadn't — but now ... Obviously the two fathers had something to do with it, which reminded her that in her father's eyes her only purpose in life was to make an advantageous match with another titled family. To hear her father tell it, it was time she gave up her silly resistance, her supposed freedom of being an unmarried woman, and place herself under a man's control, as though being under her father's control was anywhere close to freedom. Well, she was just as stubborn as her father. He could rave all he wanted. She would marry whom she wished — she had always known and believed that, and it wouldn't be to gain a title. It would be for love. And she didn't love the insufferable Lord Blakely Hansford, Marquess of Sudeley.
She was startled when suddenly a goldfinch landed on the stone windowsill only a foot away and she jerked back involuntarily before catching herself. Surprisingly the bird hopped closer to the glass its black and white head and red face tilted off-center as it stared inquisitively up at her. She smiled in delight studying the tiny bird. She had never had the occasion to be this close to a wild creature before, albeit there was a thin glass pane between them. The bird's back and flanks were chestnut brown, its wings black with a broad yellow bar. Slowly she pressed her palm against the glass and to her amazement the bird pecked lightly, almost intimately, on the glass beneath her fingers.
"My goodness," she giggled completely taken aback. "What have we here?"
The bird gave forth a pleasant silvery twittering, a tinkling medley of trills and twitters. Efrona couldn't help the oddest sensation that if she opened the casement the bird would fly inside and perhaps even land upon her shoulder. Her absorption in the bird's antics was cut short by a light knock on her bedroom door.
"Efrona," her mother's soft voice came from the opposite side of the door. "Are you in there?"
"Yes, mother, come in," she called, quickly straightening.
Swinging her stocking feet to the floor she slid them into her slippers. The older woman stepped into the room and closed the door quietly behind her. Efrona glanced back at the window. The bird was gone. She sighed disappointed.
"What is it, mother?" she asked trying to remain objective for she knew what this was about ... her mother, always the peacemaker.
"Well, you seemed rather upset when you left the breakfast table. I just thought I'd come check on you," the countess said sitting down beside her daughter.
"Father is insufferable," Efrona sighed disgustedly.
"Your father — is only concerned about your welfare dear —"
"Hah!" Efrona snorted rolling her eyes.
"Oh Efrona! Why are you always at odds with your father? I fear your lofty notions will only bring you heartache."
Efrona said nothing staring out the window silently wishing the little goldfinch would return.
"My dear, the house party will be just the thing. You've been so absorbed in your books of late and have neglected your friends far too long. Besides, you haven't seen Lord Hansford in — goodness, how long has it been?" her mother suddenly quizzed.
"Four years," Efrona said absently eyes searching the hedges below her window.
"Oh," her mother gasped. "Four years? Surely it hasn't been that long!"
Efrona looked at her mother with her figure round as her cheeks and a soothing softness in her tone. What would it be like to be her mother, soft, to allow herself to be meek and gentle, the total opposite of her father? Would it smooth over her own sharp edges? Her father called her a disappointment, a cruel daughter, an unnatural woman for her lack of enthusiasm for marriage to Lord Hansford. A loathing for marriage and the prospect of motherhood had less to do with her reticence than the man her father had chosen for her. The man did not inspire trust or desire.
Four days later the inevitable occurred. Efrona's nine year old sister Heather burst into the room and flopped unceremoniously on the bed. Efrona tilted her head and peered at her sister. Heather's name, like her own, had to do with meadows and birds — in Efrona's estimation — a harebrained mania of their mother's, and her fixation with nature, particularly birds. Her mother could have, at least, come up with a name more alluring than, Efrona — even if it did mean, Sweet Singing Bird in Hebrew. Hebrew no less! Heather now, that was a rather pleasant name ... but Efrona? She wished she could have chosen her own name, something like Catherine or Elizabeth or, Sophia ... she liked the name Sophia.
"Heather, don't you ever knock?" Efrona demanded straightening in her chair and laying aside her newly acquired book, Northanger Abbey.
"He's here," the girl said by way of answer.
Efrona didn't need to ask who. He was early. No other guests had arrived as of yet. She stood and walked to peer out the window. There was no reason to do so; she couldn't see the long drive or the front entrance to the house from her window. It was just something to do. She stood staring out over the rolling countryside resentment and curiosity at war within her. Could she expect the same arrogant person, or ..."
"Aren't you going down to meet him?" Heather questioned bouncing up and down on the bed impatiently.
"Why should I?" Efrona shrugged.
"Because he's gorgeous," her sister sighed clasping her hands to her breast and rolling her eyes in a pretend swoon.
Efrona settled on the bed beside her sister causing the mattress to sink inward jouncing their shoulders together and her full cone-shaped skirts to slip upward revealing lacy petticoat and slender white stocking-clad ankles.
"And just what do you know about such things?" Efrona laughed clutching the girl's thin form against her side in a sisterly embrace.
Heather gave an audible gulp and glanced sheepishly up at her older sister.
"Heather Drake! You've been secretly reading my novels?!" she accused. "You little stinker you!"
"Well, it's not like you hide them so I wouldn't see," the girl huffed. "You leave them lying about."
Efrona grinned. "Just don't let momma find out," she warned, "Or I'll never hear the end of it."
"So, you're going down to meet him?" Heather brightened.
Efrona gave a long aggrieved sigh. "I suppose I ought."
"Are you going to change —"
"What's wrong with this dress?" she demanded getting to her feet and positioning herself before the tall floor-length looking glass.
With hands on the subtle flare of her hips she surveyed the blue silk and cotton gauze day dress with its slightly cone-shaped skirt, trimmed with frills around the hem with a judicious eye. The high-necked bodice was fitted and long-sleeved, covering throat and wrists with a round frilled neckline to her throat. It hugged her shapely breasts and slim waist and the puffed shoulders and long snug-fitting sleeves were particularly stylish. Brown eyes in a heart-shaped face peered acutely back at her. Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a low chignon, parted in the center with ringlets covering her ears. She was not displeased with what she saw.
"Nothing, I suppose," Heather sighed indifferently.
"Well, stop trying to give me a guilt trip. I do not intend to change, not for him," she sniffed.
Minutes later Efrona descended the wide staircase. She decided she had better, before her father summoned her. She heard voices emanating from her father's study. One she recognized as her father's and the other she hadn't recalled hearing in some time, but of course she knew its owner. She took a deep breath and stepped up to the door and knocked lightly. Her father opened the door.
"Ah, Sudeley," he beamed, "Here is Lady Efrona, your betrothed, now."
Efrona barely resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
"Well, I'll leave you two alone to get reacquainted," her father said and walked from the room closing the door behind him.
She could have hit her father over the head. What was he thinking, leaving her alone with this man? Of course, he knew exactly what he was doing, she sniffed.
The young man who stood with his back to the door slowly turned. He was fashionably dressed, his light brown hair parted from the side curled about his nape in a soft moderate wave. A dark double-breasted tail coat with turned-back cuffs and a matching high collar of velvet molded his powerfully built shoulders. His waistcoat, shirt, and cravat were white. Light-colored pantaloons hugged his muscular thighs. Black Hessian boots completed his wardrobe.
She had scoffed at Heather when her sister had used the word gorgeous to describe Lord Hansford. But Heather had been correct — Hansford was too pretty by half. No man should have a nose as sculpted as his, or eyes as green as moss. And she had forgotten how tall he was; taller than his cousin Lord Edward, she realized, though she hadn't seen the two of them side by side in years. There was an air of aristocratic softness about Lord Edward Hansford. His frame was elegantly long and thin, and his features, not counting the smallpox scars, which he kept well hidden with face powder, were delicate, almost feminine. There was nothing even remotely delicate or feminine about the man before her. He wasn't long; he was tall, towering over her by a full foot. And he wasn't thin but athletically lean. And he was handsome. Had it been so long since she had seen him that she could have forgotten how very handsome he was?
His eyes met hers. Rather bemused, Efrona watched his eyes widen imperceptibly as though momentarily caught off guard by what he saw. She lowered her eyes realizing she had been staring and felt her cheeks warm. But after several heartbeats, feeling his forceful gaze on her, she glanced back up at him.
"My Lord," she said, smiling uneasily, "why do you look at me so?" She could have kicked herself for speaking out.
"I was thinking how beautiful you are," he said quietly, and then his face lost some of its color as though realizing he had inadvertently voiced aloud a private thought.
She quickly looked away the rose color in her cheeks brightening. Not once before had he ever complimented her. On the contrary he had always been eager to get away from her and join his male cronies. Her senses suddenly tingled and her breath caught in her lungs for an instant. She wasn't sure if she cared for the sensation or not.
"How wonderfully kind of you, Lord Hansford." She knew her eyes smoldered with irritation. What game was he playing now? Well, she was done abiding his infantile mockery. "And here I've waited four years for such a flowery compliment. Do you have more?"
Oh, dear. Had she actually said that? There was no excuse for having made such a comment.
The line of his mouth tightened and there was a flash of indisputable confusion in his moss-green eyes. She was watching him and her lips parted slightly and a bit of the anger she was feeling blunted.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled. "I seemed to always say all manner of unsuitable things around you, and we haven't met in years." She stood smoothing out her gown. "Well, I shall leave you so you may get ready for dinner," she said squaring her slender shoulders and notching her chin up.
She had the ridiculous urge to shake her fist at him. She fought it back. She mustn't remain in this room alone with him a moment longer. He said nothing and she could feel his gaze upon her back as she walked with regal stringency to the door where she paused and darted a quick glance back at him before stepping into the hall. Was that relief she saw in his eyes or reticence? The thought annoyed her. Why had he come? Obviously he hadn't changed a bit.
At six-twenty of the clock, Efrona, clad in a gown of ivory taffeta edged with pale blue flowers along the hem and neckline, hesitated outside the door to the drawing room, feeling absolutely gleeful as she did so. She glanced at herself in the hall mirror and tugged the lace-trimmed open neckline a further quarter inch below the turn of her smooth creamy shoulders. She smiled at her image, not that she was vain or anything. But she was pleased with the way the gown fit her, displaying just enough of the tops of her softly rounded breasts to not be scandalous. It was one of her favorite dresses. Would it catch the Marquess of Sudeley's notice? She frowned. Why she should want that she suddenly questioned.
Whether the Marquess noticed her or not, her father would be fuming at her tardiness she gloated. She knew just how far to push the man. Twenty minutes overdue was flirtingly close to the edge she knew, but was unlikely to result in any lasting impairment. After all, she knew her limits when it came to angering her sire. Wilson the footman stepped forward ready to open the door at her nod.
Which fiancé would she find at dinner, she wondered, the arrogant Marquess of Sudeley that she was hardened to, or ... that — how was she to describe the man she met just hours before? She had been determined to at least attempt cordiality with him, and she had been so focused and driven on that undertaking that she thought of nothing else. But he had bowled her over, literally, with his unexpected politeness, not to mention his charming complement and ... that initial look in his eyes when their gazes met. It had awakened something in her, something that had once seemed far out of reach.
She took a deep breath and nodded. The footman opened the tall doors and she stepped across the threshold, back stiff, head held high. There he stood a mere six feet away very properly dressed for dinner. He was engaged in conversation with her father. Her mother sat on the settee. At the sound of the door opening the Marquess turned his head toward her and for a fleeting instant she saw what she thought was a strained tightness in his features just before his eyes settled upon her. And at that moment the tension dissolved. He smiled and she was certain his green eyes danced with ... surely that wasn't, approval?
"Good evening Lady Efrona," he said, a little stiffly, even awkwardly, mockingly perhaps, she thought.
"Good evening, my lord. Have I kept you waiting?" she smiled innocently before curtsying.
She avoided looking at her father although she could visualize the angry scowl on his face, and it took effort not to grin.
"Not at all," the Marquess smiled, bowing, his eyes never leaving her face.
Excerpted from "Where Eagles Dare"
Copyright © 2017 Wayne M. Hoy.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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