Authors: Sandra Owens
Tags: #General Fiction
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
COPYRIGHT © 2013 by Sandra Owens
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected]
Cover Art by
Tina Lynn Stout
The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
PO Box 708
Adams Basin, NY 14410-0708
Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com
First English Tea Rose Edition, 2013
Print ISBN 978-1-61217-856-1
Digital ISBN 978-1-61217-857-8
Published in the United States of America
2012 contest finals for
RWA's Beau Monde's Royal Ascot
WisRWA Fab Five
OKRWA Finally a Bride
Celtic Hearts Golden Claddagh
Jeffrey Michael and DeAnna, this one’s for you.
To my husband, Jim, love you, O.
Always have, always will.
The Earl of Daventry’s Study
Dear cousin mine,
If you are reading this letter, then I am dead. A pity that. I had always hoped you would go first so I could spit on your grave.
As that pleasure has been denied me, allow me to aim my arrow at a new target, namely your heart. This is going to knock the earth out from under your feet, Cousin, so prepare yourself. I have earned a place in hell for this one act, but it was worth giving my soul to the Devil to know my deeds will destroy you
From the day you were born, I have hated you. Even at the age of ten, I understood you would be more than me by simply being born Lord Michael Jefferes, heir to the Earl of Daventry. Everyone adored you and I could not bear it.
So, what devilish little trick have I played on you from beyond the grave? Christ Almighty, I pray there is a window in hell that will allow me to see your face as you read my next words.
When Lady Diana Cavanaugh caught your interest, I tried my damnedest to turn her attentions to me. Why should you have the richest heiress in the kingdom? Why should you have it all? I will admit, knowing you loved the lady made me determined to have her. When it became apparent she only had eyes for you, I put my devious mind to concocting a new scheme. The brilliance of it staggers me still.
It was the most delicious moment of my life when you found me in bed with your betrothed on the eve of your wedding. Here is what you don’t know—I never touched her that night! You thought you saw her betraying you, but what you actually saw was a drugged woman.
Are you suitably impressed? If not yet, do not despair, there is more.
Before I get to the best part, let me tell you a little about my wife. I have ruined her. She loved you and I did my best to beat it out of her. She can no longer bear the touch of a man. The beautiful, spirited girl you loved is no more.
You are likely asking why I waited a year to put this letter in your hands. I wanted my darling wife to have her year of mourning my poor dead self. So she would have no distractions from that loving duty, I have installed her and our son in a very out of the way place, a very lonely place.
I still haven’t told you my coup de grace.
With shaking hands, the Earl of Daventry lowered the letter to his desk. Sweet Jesus, what had his cousin done? Michael’s heart pounded loudly in his ears. He slapped his hand over his chest. God in heaven, what had
done? He squeezed his eyes shut against the image of a vibrant girl, her beautiful face turned up to him, laughter in her eyes. How did he still see her so clearly after all these years? He thought he had long ago banished her forever from his memory. He did not want her in his mind.
On legs that felt boneless, he stood and walked to the sideboard. Pouring three fingers of brandy into a glass, he stared at it a moment, then filled it to the brim. Bringing the drink to his lips, he tilted his head and poured the contents down his throat, igniting a burning fire in his belly. He blamed his watery eyes on the drink. He poured more, but was interrupted by three brisk knocks on the door. Johnston.
The door opened and his secretary poked his head in. “My lord? You told me to meet you here at two.” Johnston glanced at the brandy. “Is everything all right, my lord?”
“No, everything is not bloody all right.” Michael eyed the glass in his hand and set it aside. Although tempting, drinking himself into a state of oblivion would not banish Leo’s words.
“We will not work on estate matters today, Johnston, but I need you to do two things. Send my regrets to Lady Hartwell that I will not be available to escort her to the Southerly’s ball. Then find the late Baron Brantley’s solicitor. His name is Suggs, or Skruggs, or something of that sort. Return with an address as soon as you have it. Until then, I do not want to be disturbed.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“On second thought, don’t bother sending Lady Hartwell a message. I will call on her myself.” Turning away, Michael waited to hear the door close. He picked up the letter and resumed reading.
There is a possibility James Charles Standish is your son! You see why I pray there is a window in hell? You should also know, I have done my best to instill my hate for you onto the boy.
I managed (and had much fun doing so) to spend my wife’s inheritance, most of it going to whores and gaming hells. What this means is there is little money left for my wife and the boy, so as to their condition at their little hideaway, I couldn’t say. How could I? I am dead.
However, you may no longer give a damn. If so, then already, I like you better. But I know you Cousin; your sanctimonious scruples will not allow you to turn your back on them. So, I hereby bequeath to you one used wife and one (possible) son. Do with them what you will.
Your ever loving cousin,
The letter fell away, floating down to Michael’s desk. He might have a son? Jesus. Sweet Jesus. His stomach heaved and he lurched out the French doors. Taking a deep gulp of fresh air, he walked along a gravel path to clear his head.
Christ, he possibly had a son.
He had to find the boy. And, if Leo was to be believed, a son who hated him. If the boy was truly his son.
How would he ever know the truth? How old was James? He mentally calculated the age the child would need to be. Even if James were too young for Michael to have sired him, they would still be cousins, once removed. Still family.
And, the boy’s mother? If he rescued James, he couldn’t very well leave her behind. What was he to do with them? The image floated into his mind of the young woman he had once loved beyond all reason.
She can no longer bear the touch of a man.
Michael stopped and scowled at a rosebush. She had once loved being touched by him. They hadn’t been able to keep their hands off each other, thus the early anticipation of their wedding vows. A harsh laugh escaped him. One time, two days before their wedding and he might have a son.
His hands curled into fists. He fervently wished Leo were still alive so he could kill him. Turning on his heels, he strode back to his study. He had plans to make.
The following morning, Michael paced the floor of Lady Hartwell’s drawing room while waiting for her to make an appearance. His life had taken a drastic turn and he didn’t know how it would affect his relationship with Serena. At the age of six and thirty, he had finally decided it was time to marry and start his nursery. He needed an heir. He had chosen the young widow because he enjoyed her company in bed and out. No, that was the secondary reason. The real reason was that she didn’t require him to love her.
He stopped and leveled a frown at the door. Where was she? He was anxious to get this over with. His next visit would be to Leo’s solicitor, where he would learn the location of the boy and his mother, and then he could be about the business of rescuing them.
Michael sketched a bow. “Serena, as always, you are looking lovely.” A truth. The petite, blue-eyed blond was a diamond of the first water and fully aware of her beauty.
She came to him with hands outstretched. “My dearest lord, this is a pleasant surprise. I had not expected to see you until tonight.”
He took her hands in his and kissed the knuckles of one and then the other. “I apologize, my dear, but I’m afraid I must beg off. Something has come up, an emergency at one of my estates, and I must leave immediately.” Already a lie. How many more would follow?
Irritation flashed in her eyes before she schooled her expression into one of concern. “Oh, nothing serious, I pray.”
“Possibly, I won’t know for sure until I get there.”
She pulled her hands from his grasp and moved to the sofa, taking a moment to arrange her skirts to her satisfaction. He doubted it was accidental that an enticing bit of ankle was left exposed. She patted the space next to her. “Come and sit. I will call for tea and you can tell me all about this little emergency of yours.”
The devil. Why couldn’t she just express concern and send him on his way? “Again, my apologies, but I must decline. I am leaving immediately.”
Her full lips formed into a pretty pout. “Surely, you can spare me a few minutes, my lord.” Her expression suddenly brightened. “Oh, I just had the most glorious idea.”
The hair stood up on his neck, and he eyed the door with longing. With resignation, he asked the question. “What would that be?”
“Why, I shall come with you.” When he didn’t respond, she rushed on. “I would dearly love to see your estate, and I will keep you
on the journey.” She joyfully clapped her hands together. “Oh, Daventry, it would be like a holiday.”
Michael marveled at the innuendo she managed to place on the word entertain. His gaze lowered to her sensual, pink lips. If he were truly going to his estate on an emergency, he would be sorely tempted. Perversely curious as to how she would respond to the truth, he resisted the urge to tell her he was off to find his perhaps-son and the woman who had once meant as much to him as the air he breathed.
“I’m sorry, Serena, but not this time. I will be traveling fast and hard and do not know exactly what I’m facing until I arrive.” That was certainly true.
Her eyes watered and one lone tear rolled down a rose-tinted cheek. How long had she practiced that trick before she could accomplish it with such lovely perfection? He was starting to feel mean. He needed to leave before he said something best left unsaid.
Be nice. This is the woman you intend to marry.
Serena’s husband had never been able to walk away from the roll of the dice or a hand of cards. He had left her destitute, and she now depended on her uncle’s generosity, a man Michael did not like. She made it no secret that she hoped for a marriage proposal. For her, it meant financial security, and she liked being seen on his arm. He had been meaning to ask her for some time now, but kept putting it off. Why, he wasn’t sure.
He went to her, took her hand and pulled her up. “I shall miss you, my dear. Come and walk me to the door.”
On the portico of her townhouse, Michael glanced at the street and seeing no passing carriages or people strolling by, he kissed her. Lifting his head, he looked into her pale blue eyes. “I will call on you as soon as I return.”
“You will be back in time for the Southerly’s ball on Saturday evening.”