Elizabeth Ashburton lives behind a charming, happy façade in an effort to forget her former life. But when she is forced to confront the devil from her past, her friends in the dowager duchess’s widows club can not save her, and Elizabeth turns to the last man on earth willing to help her…
The extraordinarily powerful Rowland Manning has never pretended to be anything but a bastard, in every way imaginable. Through innate grit and determination, he built an astonishing empire and he’ll do anything and everything to save it. Yet, the one thing he secretly craves . . . something even he cannot name, can never be purchased with his kingdom of riches.
Each has something to win. Each has something to lose. Only love will determine if the price of redemption and sacrifice is too high.
From Chapter One
Beribboned ladies and bespectacled lords were squashed tooth and jowl in St. George’s, all strained in readiness for the much-anticipated wedding of one of their own. The beautiful bride entered on pearl-encrusted slippers, a tall stranger beside her.
Chests puffed in outrage. Fans fell from fingers. The archbishop raised a brow. The audacity. The unmitigated gall.
How dared Rowland Manning, the most ruthless, enigmatic man in all of England, tread these holy pavers of righteousness? Why, he was the heartless bastard from whom gentlemen shielded their daughters, warned their sons, and prayed their wives never met. Yet here, flaunting before the best and brightest jewels of English aristocracy, the big bad wolf escorted an innocent lamb—with the merest glint of large white teeth showing.
There was but one person not focused on the audacious spectacle. She was far too busy praying.
Numb and exposed in front of the paneled high pew boxes trimmed with every last white flower to be had in London, Elizabeth Ashburton begged for deliverance.
Her feet answered.
“And just where do you think you’re going?” The shrewd, wizened visage of the kindhearted Dowager Duchess of Helston peered over the top of a bouquet far too large for her petite form.
“To, um, see to Grace’s cloak in the vestry, Ata. I think I forgot to hang it.” Elizabeth held the dowager’s suspicious gaze like the seasoned campaigner in the art of lying that she was.
“Hmmm. How very thoughtful,” Ata murmured, “if not doubtful. Oh botheration, Elizabeth. You’ve overseen the preparation of the breakfast, and helped with the flowers. You’ve done enough.”
Elizabeth’s best friend, Sarah Winters, who stood on the other side of the dowager, sent her a speaking glance, as Ata continued. “Honestly, Eliza, I don’t know what’s become of the sociable lady I knew in Cornwall.” A pert smile erased the wrinkles and doubt lurking in her alert, dark eyes. “Oh, do look at Grace. Have you ever seen a happier, more eager bride?”
The tightness in Elizabeth’s chest made it hard to breathe. The swell of trumpet and organ signaled the official beginning of the wedding. No one would miss one stray bridesmaid. She shifted one blue satin toe closer toward the—
“Take my arm, Elizabeth,” Ata murmured, a step ahead of her in thought and action. “I need your support. Oh, and Sarah... you too, my dear.”
Elizabeth’s heart redoubled its beat. She opened her mouth but Ata continued, “That Mr. Manning cut it far too close, don’t you think? Highly irregular even for a devil of his ilk to arrive three minutes before the ceremony.” Ata raised her chin, showing all four feet eleven inches of hauteur to advantage.
Elizabeth Ashburton gripped a tiny bouquet of violets as Grace and her unlikely escort walked ever closer. The attention of hundreds of the most influential and most notorious gossipmongers of the peerage drifted toward all of them at the front. They were the sort who would recount for generations the exact number of Belgium-lace flounces on the bride’s gown, as well as the number of dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, barons, and lesser titles who grumbled and forwent a far more entertaining morning at White’s Club to offer escort to their wives, mothers, and sisters. Elizabeth was of a mind with the gentlemen. Indeed, she would have rather faced the Light Division’s flogging post than risk this sort of exposure. A gentleman’s voice filled her mind unbidden...
We were predestined, my angel. Surely you cannot doubt it. You were meant for me, and I shall take care of you—protect you, in return. You will soon forget your sadness.
She shivered. The memory always arrived paired with the vivid recollection of his hand resting on her bare arm. His white glove had been pristine save for one tiny drop of blood near his thumb.
She forced the picture from her mind. She wanted so badly to be free of the past. She had been lulled into thinking it was a possibility during the last eighteen carefree months with Ata and the rest of the ladies in the dowager’s circle of friends.
Elizabeth pushed back her shoulders, glanced at Sarah on the other side of the petite dowager duchess, and resigned herself to fate. She would enjoy this. Danger be damned.
Elizabeth’s breath caught at the site of the groom’s handsome face, which held such private love and poignant happiness that it was almost too painfully intimate to observe as Grace walked the last few steps to stand before the archbishop. Never had London witnessed such a glorious love match, and even the peerage, as fashionably jaded as they tried mightily to appear, could not muster a single snipe for the perfection they embodied.
Elizabeth’s eyes moved to the man who stood between Grace and the Earl of Wallace. His was a bemused, cynical face, devoid of all sensibilities. Indeed, upon close scrutiny it was bankrupt of any sort of integrity at all. The hardened planes of Rowland Manning’s face were framed by thick black hair shot through with several silver streaks. She had the odd thought that his eyes should be blacker than the dead of night instead of the luminous pale green she spied.
Elizabeth knew why the earl had allowed the infamous man to walk Grace past the six stately Corinthian columns, down the center of St. George’s. He was his half brother after all.
The bastard son of the former Earl of Wallace.
Elizabeth shivered at the thought of the two men, one so good, the other quite the opposite, and both so startlingly tall. But only one was capable of laughing and spitting in the eye of God one moment and the devil the next.
Why, Mr. Manning had had the audacity to attempt to take Grace’s fortune in exchange for his half brother’s life only a few months ago. And studying him now, he appeared as if he hadn’t lost a wink of sleep over the entire botched, hushed-up affair.
Elizabeth never fully understood why Grace and Michael forgave the terrible man, but forgive him they did. Love had a way of leading to forgiveness, she supposed. It was simply ironic that it was so obvious that love did not flow in the opposite direction.
As Elizabeth watched Grace float the last few feet to the front, tears pricked the backs of her eyes. Dressed in the blush of pink lamé netting over silver tissue, she appeared like the veriest angel from paradise. Orange blossoms and sparkling brilliants threaded her artfully arranged fair hair. Her signature pearls graced her décolleté. But in her gloved hands, the countess carried the oddest thing... a horseshoe studded with tiny rosebuds. Michael Ranier de Peyster, the newest Earl of Wallace, broke into a wide grin and reached for his bride’s hand.
“You can’t have her,” Rowland Manning murmured with a growl of a voice that sounded as if he ate gravel for breakfast and washed it down with sawdust. His eyes half closed in dark bemusement. “Patience, little brother. The bloke with the silver hat will let you know when it’s your turn.”
A choke of laughter escaped Ata before she regained her composure. “Oh, I do wish Mr. Brown was here.” The tiny wizened dowager duchess stood on her tiptoes, and her gnarled hand nudged Eliza. “I still cannot imagine why he insists on brooding in Scotland.”
Elizabeth looked into the elderly lady’s sad expression, and whispered, “Have faith. Surely he’ll come for Victoria and the duke’s wedding.”
“No.” The dowager’s dark eyes brewed with melancholy. “I fear he has, indeed, given up, just when—”
The rector interrupted Ata by clearing his throat and commencing the solemnization. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of... ”
His sonorous voice faded from her conscious as Elizabeth darted another glance past the heavy canopy over the pulpit toward the eagle-eyed, starched, and boxed crowd. Perhaps she would be lucky after all. Really, there was no reason to think he would put in an appearance.
Surely, a celebrated hero had more important things to do than attending a ton wedding. Her only confidant must have read her thoughts, for Sarah reached behind the dowager and gave her hand an encouraging squeeze.
The archbishop droned on, “... marriage was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of... ”
Elizabeth’s glance caught on the defiling eyes of Rowland Manning as he perused her form. It was obvious he had never sought a remedy against sin and most likely latched on to every chance at fornication. When he raised his eyes to her own, the barest hint of a curl at the edge of his mouth betrayed his amusement at her censure.
“Wilt thou love her, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?” The archbishop, dressed in formal vestments, gazed expectantly at the Earl of Wallace, whose attention was fully absorbed by his beloved.
After a beat the black-hearted brother ground out, “Well, any bloody fool can see he’s mutton-headed over the chit.”
The earl grinned and finally recited his vows.
Ata murmured for Elizabeth’s ears only, “He looks like Judas in that painting, don’t you think?” She nodded toward the reredos of the Last Supper. The notorious black-haired betrayer crept along the edge. “One has to wonder. It’s always the ones like that... Well, I would wager Mr. Manning’s kisses bring most ladies to their knees.”
“Ata!” The tiny dowager’s outrageous comments never failed to shock.
“Pish, I’m certain of it. Why, if he weren’t so appallingly corrupt and unsuitable... ” The all-too-familiar appraising gaze of Ata focused on Elizabeth.
The awful naked sensation of being an object under scrutiny made Elizabeth restlessly scan the pews once more until her eyes came to rest across from her. Oh, for goodness sakes. The pale green eyes of Rowland Manning were inspecting her again. Perhaps he’d overheard Ata. His darkly bronzed face was in stark relief against the whiteness of his teeth, now revealed in a mocking smile.
She stiffened. The man appeared to be undressing her in the corners of his wicked mind while standing in the house of the Lord.
And then he laughed softly.
A wave of movement caught Elizabeth’s attention, and she half turned, only to see the very person she and Sarah had managed to evade for the last two years entering the church. A retinue of six scarlet-coated officers flanked him as he stopped at the entrance to the sanctuary. Now the attention of the crowd was caught between the two spectacles—one in the front of the church, and one in the rear.
She darted a glance at Sarah and they both hunched forward to hide their faces. Elizabeth would never forgive herself for her past misjudgments, which had led to their present circumstances.
Ata whispered, “Such an honor. Who would have thought he would actually come... ”
The last few words of the ceremony were lost on Eliza as she tamped down the urge to run. Only her long years spent following the drum saved her. She would not forget the lessons taught to her by the man she had loved more than anyone else on earth.
The smallest muffled sniff of happiness escaped the dowager duchess as the Earl of Wallace clasped Grace, now a countess twice over, in a scandalously improper kiss as the crowd swelled with a combination of outrage from the older matrons and delighted amusement by the rest.
Flashes of red snagged Elizabeth’s attention, and then she knew. He’d spotted her and was now sending his dogs to circle. Her heart pounding, cool reason fled. She dared to look directly at him in the rear of the sanctuary. His blond hair gleamed like a halo beneath one of the silver candelabra while a look of assurance decorated a face Eliza had learned to dread.
Arm in arm, Grace and Michael retreated down the center aisle, Ata and the rest of the couple’s friends following close behind. At that moment, Eliza clutched Sarah’s hand. “We’ll have a better chance if you go to the back, and I go out the side.”
“Eliza, no. You should take the safer—”
“Absolutely not, Sarah. Now go... ”
She had already darted behind the double-decked reading desk, and skirted the half wall of Corinthian columns in front of the altar to find the panel door feeding into the rector’s passage on the side. Now running as if the hounds of hell nipped her heels, Elizabeth negotiated the complicated maze before she found the exit, which fed into Mill Street, at the rear of the church. Ripping the wreath of flowers from her hair, she quickly debated her options in the brilliant May sunshine.
Suddenly spying an enormous, wilting funereal arrangement outside the door, she dropped the violets and grabbed it. Holding it in front of her, she forced herself to slow to a normal pace as she rounded the corner to Mill Street. Through the flower stalks, she saw a scarlet coat and her knees nearly buckled. Sarah was nowhere in sight.
Without a second thought, she grasped the door handle of the nearest carriage, shoved the flowers into the hands of the startled coachman standing nearby, and leapt inside. Before tugging the door closed, she begged the older man, “Just a few minutes, please. A guinea if you say not a word.”
The scrawny man smiled, winked above the flowers and bobbed his accord while he began whistling a tune as if nothing had occurred. Eliza released the curtains to fall fully across the windows, and backed into the near crook of the carriage, her ear to the wall. The deep clang from the bell tower pealed the joyful news of another happily ever after.
A cornered mouse... yes, that was how she felt. She released the tension in her chest, only to take in the masculine bouquet of scents swirling inside the elegant carriage—glycerin leather soap, tobacco, and that indefinable element of excessive richesse. A crystal decanter half filled with amber spirits stood in a casing in the polished rosewood interior.
And then suddenly...
Lord, she could hear the driver telling someone, “Ain’t seen nobody loikes that, Cap’n.”
Blood pumping fast and furiously in her ears blocked out the low, insistent words from the soldier.
“No, that be me master’s lady bird... No mate, you doesn’t go in wivout ’is leave and ’e be—”
A deeper new voice interrupted, “Lefroy, what’s the bloody problem? Don’t say your past has finally caught up with you. Well we’ve no time for this, man.” Oh, it was that blackguard Manning’s voice, she was certain. “And what in hell are you doing with that moldy thing? Taken to selling posies on the side, have you?”
Now it was the officer’s voice, rising in intensity, “Sir, this has nothing to do with your driver. We’re searching for—”
“Don’t care. Don’t want to know.”
“But I’m certain I saw a woman entering this—”
“Lefroy, I’ll dock your pay if you don’t get us out of this bog of humanity in time. Auction’s in twenty bloody minutes.”
When Elizabeth heard the loud creak of the door handle, she knew her goose was cooked. People said it had to rain on wedding days for good luck. Today, there was nary a cloud in the vast, pale blue sky. And of course she had had the bad fortune to enter the carriage of the last man on earth willing to help her.
She sucked in her breath as the light from the sunny day filled the doorway for the briefest moment before it was blocked by the broad shoulders of the powerful man. He was uttering a foul obscenity over his shoulder as he lunged inside, and so he did not see her.
With irritation, Rowland Manning flipped aside the charcoal-gray tails of his coat within the dark confines of his carriage and turned to plunk his frame down onto the seat. He landed on something far too soft and he sprang up like a scalded dog. “What the devil?”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Manning. Um... I require your assistance.” She exhaled. “Please.”
Ah... the juicy widowed morsel from the church—the one with the bountiful hair and the magnificent glittering emerald eyes. He narrowed his gaze. “Really? And what’s in it for me?”
She was doing a fairly good job of hiding her panic. Only her uneven breathing gave her away. “Everything I have if you will not betray me to those soldiers.”
“Everything? Hmmm, my favorite word.”
Someone knocked insistently on the carriage door. “Yes, yes. Anything.”
“All right. But one word and I’ll throw you to the wolves myself,” he muttered. In a smattering of moments he wrapped her damned lace fichu around his neck, transferred his hat to her head, and flipped up her skirts, ignoring her shocked intake of breath. He abruptly hooked an arm under one of her knees and fit himself snugly between her slender thighs. Surprisingly, she had the good sense to keep her lips from flapping and hid her face against his neck cloth. At the last second, he lowered his breeches, and reached for his crop between the roof’s hat straps.
The carriage door wrenched open, and the sound of gruff coughing mixed with coarse guffaws soon echoed behind him. Rowland worked the trunk of his body against hers in a slow, provocative manner, not allowing her to retreat an inch as he tickled her calf with his crop.
He turned his head slightly and addressed the onlookers, “Gawk if you like, you buggers. Lizzie likes it, don’t you, dearie? But there’s a price. Lefroy? Make ‘em pay up or be gone.” He reached over and yanked the door closed.
He looked down into her wild eyes, which held the same mesmerizing sparkle as sunset’s rays as they bounced off the River Thames. She made a few inarticulate noises, pushed against his chest and budged him not.
“Oh no. We’ve gone this far, madam. I’ll not face the magistrate now. Wrap your legs around me, you fool. If there’s a second act, you could put more effort into it. A few moans wouldn’t hurt,” he growled into her pretty ear.
She was glorious with that dazzling beck of honey-colored hair flowing from beneath his brushed beaver hat, her vibrant eyes spearing him with defiance.
“Give me that.” She took a swipe at the plaited leather whip he tickled her with, but missed as he raised it above his head.
There was but the thinnest bit of feminine linen separating him from intimate knowledge of her, and he had to give her credit for displaying such pluck in the face of such offenses.
But then, he didn’t know her, did he? Oh, he knew she was one of those widowed harpies trying to claw her way up the slippery slopes of society by way of the Helston clan’s coattails. But now it appeared her ladyship had a few sinful secrets tucked away in her blue silk and satin skirts. Didn’t they all?
She was, indeed, every bit as much an actor in this farcical quagmire of humanity plaguing the earth as he.
Christ, she was so damn soft beneath him, and she smelled so good. His groin pulsed despite the cacophony of voices outside the door, and he cursed foully.
“Lefroy,” he barked over his shoulder toward the closed door. “If there be no takers, haul up the wheel shoe and get your bony arse on the driving board.” Furious that he had lost his usual iron grip on his body, he grabbed the edge of the seat and prepared to recommence the show if necessary.
With a shout, the conveyance jolted forward, and the sounds of the traces jangled.
He jerked away as if her flesh burned him, and whipped her skirts back into place before swinging into the opposite seat. “You’re lucky I prefer beds for ravaging,” he lied.
She smoothed imaginary wrinkles from her elegant gown as a blush crested her cheeks.
“I don’t know what you did, madam, but whatever it was, I wouldn’t wager those blades will stop looking for you. There’s a gaggle of Wellington’s finest out there with enough gold braid to excite a small village’s worth of skirts.”
She returned his hat without a word and tried to rearrange her hair without success. “May I have my fichu back?”
He tossed it to her and palmed his finely tooled crop. Crossing the space between them, he tickled her tightly clenched jaw with the end loop. “What, no tears? No explanations? Good. Now give me your nibs and nabs.”
“Nibs and nabs?” she finally spoke, expelling her breath in a rush.
“You know, those nasty sharp bits or anything else you might foolishly try to use to thank me.”
“Mr. Manning, I know you’ll be surprised to learn that I don’t have any nibs or nabs on my person,” she said with all the primness of a schoolmistress. Not that he had spent a moment in school. But he could imagine.
“No? Perhaps a search is in order then,” he said, trying to raise the edge of her gown’s hem with his crop.
She swatted it away and looked at him sourly. “Look, I thank you for your quick thinking—your performance. Really, I had no idea... And to reassure you, I’ve every intention of properly repaying you.” She brushed the corner of the curtain and glimpsed outside again. Oh, they were nearing Lamb’s Conduit Fields, where she knew someone who might very well come to her aid. “Would you be so kind as to deposit me at the gates of the foundling home?”
“No,” he said, without hesitation.
She jerked her attention back to him. “No? Whatever do you mean?”
He ignored her lip-flapping.
“Surely you trust a lady to repay her debts, sir.”
He gave her a lazy half smile. “You’re good. You’ve got that righteous air down pat. And you’ve fooled those toffs well enough. Helston is doubtlessly duped, as are Ellesmere, Wallace and all their brides.”
“You’re absolutely right, sir.”
He watched her pleat her hands tightly.
“Hmmm. Well, while I consider the terms of payment for saving your hide, madam, we’re for my stable yard. Nobs plump with coin won’t wait. We can’t have them trotting their fickle hides over to that damned uppity fellow Tattersall’s sticks, now can we? The pleasure of attending to you will just have to wait.”
Before she could respond, the carriage jerked to a halt, and Rowland leapt out without waiting for the step to be swung into place.
He breathed in the air, which was filled with the sweet raw fragrance of fresh pine and cut stone, the scent of new construction—and debt. It was as far removed from the aromas of his past as it could be.
Three classical structures of pale limestone fronted a sprawling, vast series of smaller buildings and enclosures. Stable hands, dressed in the dark blue and yellow colors of the stables, performed their jobs with workmanlike precision, feeding, watering, washing, working the animals with well-honed precision. But above all, it was the beauty of the animals that stood out. They were the only thing that mattered.
“You cannot hold me against my will,” the lovely little fraud insisted, moving to his side.
Her words drew him back to the moment. “No?”
“No! Now look, I insist your driver take me to—”
“Lefroy, Mrs... .” he lz`ooked at her expectantly.
“Ashburton,” she answered, exasperated.
“Mrs. Ashburton has a fondness for storerooms,” he said with heavy sarcasm. “Show her ours.”
“But, Mr. Manning. I must be allowed to send a note to the dowager duchess, and to—”
He turned toward the main massive yard now filling with gleaming silk and beaver hats and equally gleaming horseflesh. “You’re boring me, Mrs. Ashburton.” He waved his hand languorously in the air.
A hint of a breeze in the warm air carried her next words back to him.
“The feeling is entirely mutual, sir.”
He didn’t pause, yet he couldn’t stop the smallest bit of amusement from tickling his lips. Oh, she would prove an excellent test to his finely honed discipline. It had been a while since he’d jousted with an aristocratic female with morals to let. And he needed the practice, if this damned unflagging peg leg bobbing between his hips was any indication, for gawdsakes.
Yes, he had a score to settle with the Upper Ten Thousand. And he was doing it through the deep pockets of the lords who flocked to him for superior mounts, and their fickle wives who came to him for an entirely different sort of ride. The past few years, he had accommodated the latter only out of necessity and only when the blackest of moods was upon him.
This pampered lady was ripe for the plucking. She was everything his small ragtag family had not been—well fed, elegantly dressed, and clearly an inveterate charlatan. The only question was how much blunt he could extract from her and in what fashion.
Yes, the lovely Mrs. Ashburton would rue the day she chose to throw her lot in with him instead of going quietly to face her transgressions. Yet those damned eyes of hers flummoxed him with their false innocence. By God, he would wipe that expression clean by the time he was done with her. She knew nothing of his game.
They never did.
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