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Authors: Christina Brooke

Tags: #Historical romance, #Fiction

Heiress in Love

BOOK: Heiress in Love
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He was still standing there, poleaxed by the sight of her, when he heard the galloping tattoo of hoof beats gaining, gaining, finally pulling to a stop with a churn and spray of mud.

He turned his head to see his brother, George. They’d raced here cross-country, but George’s mount had refused at a stone wall, leaving him to find the long way around.

Constantine hailed his sibling. “George, I’m in love.”

“Ha!” His brother leaned forward to pat his horse’s gleaming neck. “You wouldn’t know love if it leaped up and bit you on the arse.”

Constantine tilted his head, considering. “You could be right. Let’s go inside and see if we can find her.”

 

 

For Jamie, with all my love

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

Publishing is a labor of love and I am fortunate to work with people whose passion for great stories inspires me and encourages me every day.

Monique Patterson, thank you for your energy and skill and your commitment to making my books shine. To Holly Blanck and the rest of the amazing team at St. Martin’s, I’m so appreciative of all the work that goes into getting my books to the shelves. Thank you, all.

To my brilliant agent, Helen Breitwieser, thank you for your guidance and support and for all the things you do that go above and beyond expectations. I love working with you.

K and D, there is so very much to thank you for, from your killer plotting and critiquing skills to your loyalty and friendship, all of which are very precious to me.

To my family and friends, thank you for putting up with all of my craziness and for helping me when the going gets tough. I love you all.

 

 

CONTENTS

 

Title Page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

 

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Epilogue

 

Sneak Peek - Mad About the Earl

Praise

Copyright

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

LONDON, SPRING, 1799

 

“You found her. After all this time.”

The low-pitched feminine voice made the Duke of Montford turn. A lady, magnificent in old gold and diamonds, stood behind him, as out of place as he was in the wholesome austerity of the nursery wing.

“Yes,” he said.

He caught a glimmer of maternal softening about the strong, elegant lines of Lady Arden’s face as she contemplated the sleeping girl. Then she transferred her shrewd gaze to his.

“Dauntry’s child?”

Montford inclined his head. Very few were aware of this little girl’s existence, but his companion knew he’d been searching high and low for Lady Jane Westruther.

He shouldn’t be surprised that Lady Arden would take a keen interest in the girl. The woman could sniff out an unattached heiress from a mile away.

This particular heiress had been lost for eight years. Her mother had run away from Lord Dauntry’s grand estate within a week of the babe’s birth, taking the child with her.

Perhaps Lady Dauntry had feared her cruel husband’s ire at the babe’s sex, or perhaps she’d fallen prey to a malady that sometimes affected women after the birth of a child. Her lord had not bothered to look for her. From all Montford could discover, she’d died of rheumatic fever within months of making her escape.

Jonathon Westruther, Earl of Dauntry, had broken his neck in a hunting accident, leaving his only daughter under Montford’s guardianship. It was a common enough arrangement; as head of the House of Westruther, Montford was named guardian to many children in this large and illustrious family. This was particularly the case where the child stood to inherit a family estate or a fortune that might require Montford’s expertise and judgment.

Sadly, Montford had acquired quite a collection of these wealthy orphans.

A tribe of children to his name and still no wife … Who’d have thought? Sometimes, he felt a hundred and he hadn’t yet reached his thirtieth year.

He glanced at his companion, all glittering elegance, her honey-brown hair gilded by candlelight. She’d followed him up here, God knew to what purpose. He wasn’t even sure why he’d come, why he’d needed to see to the child in the middle of his own ball.

Suddenly, Montford felt a trifle foolish. He’d hired a battalion of servants to care for Lady Jane Westruther, after all. One of them, a nursemaid, slept in the adjoining chamber within earshot in case her charge should wake up. He wasn’t needed here.

Gesturing for Lady Arden to precede him from the nursery, Montford couldn’t resist one last glance over his shoulder. The thin little girl lay with one small hand tucked under her cheek, her rosebud lips slightly parted and quivering with each breath, the fear in her eyes now shuttered beneath gently curving lids.

Fury welled inside him at the source of that fear. Fury, however, was an unprofitable emotion in the circumstances. With swift, ruthless efficiency, he’d destroyed the culprits who’d worked her like a slave in that squalid boardinghouse. She was safe now.

Yet, he couldn’t conquer the fear in those large gray eyes as easily as he’d vanquished the villains charged with her care. He wasn’t sure he knew how.

Turning away, Montford bowed and offered his arm to Lady Arden. She placed her gloved hand lightly upon it. As they moved through the doorway, he caught a waft of her scent. Understated, complicated, alluring. Much like the lady who wore it.

After a thoughtful pause, she spoke. “That little poppet is a considerable heiress if she is Dauntry’s child. I shall want her for Frederick Black. Roxdale’s son, you know.”

Montford masked his surprise at her directness. Lady Arden was legendary among the
ton
for her prescience and subtlety. “My lady, you know as well as I that this conversation is inappropriate. We must proceed through the proper channels.”

Her fingers flexed against his arm. “
Proper
channels! The Ministry of Marriage has become a veritable hotbed of
im
propriety, and you know it. DeVere has voted against every proposal I’ve made this year.”

“DeVere is merely peeved because you are immune to his dubious charms,” he replied.

Emotion flitted over her face, and it bothered him that he couldn’t decipher it. Perhaps he’d be obliged to pay deVere a visit.

“I want assurances from you that I will get a fair hearing,” she persisted.

Montford bit back an acid retort. Why did he find her single-mindedness so irksome? She knew little of the girl’s sorry history, after all.

He reminded himself that
he
had founded the aptly nicknamed Ministry of Marriage; had only himself to blame for the power struggles that climbed to their peak each Season. In Lady Arden’s shoes, he’d be equally eager to win such a prize as the little girl upstairs for a scion of his own dynasty.

Montford bowed. “Of course, any match you propose will receive due consideration. I am rather a stickler for the rules, you know.”

“Particularly when the rules are of your making,” she observed dryly. “Very well, if the Ministry approves, I shall have Lady Jane Westruther for the future Lord Roxdale. An excellent match.”

Indeed it would be, on paper. He’d need to further his acquaintance with Roxdale to be sure.

They neared the ballroom, where the babble of the crowd swelled over the strains of a quadrille and spilled out into the corridor. Lady Arden swept him a curtsy and turned to go in.

Montford placed his hand on her arm, staying her. “We will speak of this in good time, my lady.” He hesitated. “As the girl’s guardian, it behooves me to choose her husband carefully.”

Lady Arden’s brown eyes widened until every one of her dark eyelashes seemed picked out against the ivory of her skin. Did she divine the peculiar importance to him of this little girl? He trusted she did not. As the head of a noble house with countless eligible unmarrieds dangling from the branches of its family tree, as a man who sincerely believed love had no place in the business of marriage, he couldn’t afford to show weakness. He couldn’t afford to admit the truth: for once, he didn’t give a damn about the Ministry of Marriage.

He just wanted to see a frightened little girl smile.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

THE COTSWOLDS, ENGLAND, SPRING, 1814

 

The newly widowed Jane, Lady Roxdale, stood at the window of her private sitting room, staring out at the scene below.

Carriage upon carriage, some draped in black crêpe, some emblazoned with noble coats of arms, choked the rush-strewn drive that wound up to the house. Like a train of shiny black beetles, they shuffled between ornate wrought-iron gates, marched through an avenue of oaks, then paused beneath the portico to disgorge mourners.

Their pace was slow, respectful, inexorable. And Jane could not wait for them all to depart as slowly and respectfully as they’d come.

She pressed trembling fingertips to the windowpane. How soon? How soon must she leave her home?

Not hers anymore.
His.

Constantine Black. Her husband’s cousin and heir. The scoundrel who had not even bestirred himself to appear at his kinsman’s funeral.

If he couldn’t summon sufficient proper feeling to appear today, was she not right to fear for the estate? But then, the new Lord Roxdale was reputed to be glittering and wild, a philanderer, a drunkard, a gamester, with no thought in his head save the next faro bank, the next wench, the next bottle of wine.

He would run through his new fortune, just as he’d squandered the funds he’d inherited from his father. That would take time, of course, even for an inveterate gamester such as Constantine Black.

The Lazenby estate was vast, bolstered by the spectacular dowry Jane had brought to her marriage.
Her
family’s money would fund this wastrel’s dissipation, while she was cast out of her home. The utter, galling unfairness of it! If only …

BOOK: Heiress in Love
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