About the book
"Our love is burning like a flame..."
Tormented by images of his sister, Asher Rowan, the Duke of Tradegrove, has been fighting for justice. Certain of who killed her, one last piece of the puzzle remains before he can finally get his revenge; a plan that is put to a halt when he gets involved with an innocent Lady…
Lady Joana Lewis, Daughter of the Earl of Horenwall, is an average woman in an average world. Her only difference? She has deemed herself a spinster, refusing to marry even the most reputable of Lords.
But everything changes when a scandal involving Asher occurs and she finds herself an oathbreaker.As the bells of marriage ring in their ears, Joana and Asher are forced to accept one another. Their mission is simple; make your spouse hate you. But when the masks fall and their hearts are bared to each other, they must try to resist their passion at every cost. Or else...
The sound of the belt striking unprotected flesh echoed around the farmyard. It was followed by the plaintive wail of the boy struck and the grunting rage of the man wielding the belt.
He was large, red-faced and wearing the plain clothes of a farmer. The boy was barefoot and had a dirty face. The man raised the belt to deliver another blow to the boy cowered on the ground. The yard was a sea of mud, surrounded on three sides by mossy, stone outbuildings and a simple, thatched cottage.
His second blow never landed. A hand grabbed the man’s meaty wrist. It was a delicate hand, clad in a black glove and emerging from the sleeve of a finely cut dress. He looked around, startled.
“You will not,” Joanna Lewis said in an implacable tone.
Her round cheeks were red from the slap of the wind and her full lips compressed into a thin line. Her brown eyes were wide with anger. She had no strength to match the burly farmer if he wished to continue beating the boy. But her rank held him firmer than a strong arm could.
“My Lady!” he spluttered, stepping back and lowering his arm hurriedly. “I—”
“Be quiet and stand still,” Joanna ordered as she crouched beside the terrified boy.
“Are you hurt?” she asked. “Are you from the village?”
“Yes, My Lady,” he replied in a small voice. “He offered me money to help clean out the cowshed.”
Joanna shot a glare at the farmer. “Master Hollen. Do you think beating your farmhands is a good way of getting work out of them?”
“He was idling, My Lady,” he protested.
“I was hungry,” the boy retorted.
Joanna helped the boy to his feet and put her hand into a purse tied to a belt around her waist. She produced a coin which she gave to the boy. “Go and get yourself something to eat and then go and see the Minister about attending school.”
The boy grinned broadly as he made the coin disappear into the ragged clothing he wore.
“My Da says I need to go out and earn, My Lady,” he replied.
“And on behalf of Lord Horenwall, my Father, I say you need to be in school. I will be checking. What is your name?” Joanna asked, planting her fists on her hips.
“William Weaver, My Lady,” he replied.
“Off with you,” Joanna said, turning to the farmer as the boy scampered from the yard.
“I came here because I had received reports of your brutal treatment of your farmhands. I see now that Master Drake was not exaggerating.”
“It’s my coin, begging your pardon. I have to get a day’s work out of the idling, little—”
“Master Hollen,” Joanna interrupted with a raised hand and a glare. “I will not have it said that Lord Horenwall encourages such behavior. I am aware of the terms of your lease and you are in breach of it. I will evict you if I have to.”
“You…you can’t do that—”
“I can and I will,” Joanna replied. “Do not force my hand. I will be keeping a close eye on you. There are men in the village in need of a fair day’s pay.”
“Men are expensive.”
“And they have mouths to feed. I will be checking up on you. If you can’t run this farm properly and treat your workers well, I will replace you.”
Master Hollen gaped, mouth opening and closing like a fish. Joanna strode from the yard with a satisfied nod. Her horse was tied to a fence just beyond the cottage, which she noticed needed some attention paid to its thatch. She mounted sidesaddle and the animal bore her away down the lane at a brisk trot.
Joanna smiled to herself as she rode. Freed from the shackles of anger, her lips curved into their natural full shape. She enjoyed the feel of the air on her face, bringing more color to her already rosy cheeks. Her face felt warm from the blush and she was warm from within by what she had achieved today.
It was high time that brute was put in his place.
She felt excited by the danger she had put herself in, though she was confident there had been no real threat.
Hollen owed his living to her family and would not dare raise his hand to her. But there was still the flash of excitement, the thrill of daring. The lane wound between mossy, dry-stone walls, down the hillside toward the valley of the Horen River. Trees dotted the valley floor and farmhouses at the center of fields and meadows.
Ahead, atop a shoulder of land jutting out into the valley lay Horenwall Hall. It was screened from her view by trees but as the road wound up through the Well Wood, she caught glimpses of the grounds.
As she reached the tall gateposts that marked the entrance to the Horenwall Park, she met a man riding in the opposite direction. He was in his late thirties, face pinched and serious, wearing a plain buff coat and scuffed, knee-high boots. He pulled up his horse sharply at her appearance.
“My Lady! By Heaven, I have just received the message you left for me at Daleside Farm. I pray you have not yet gone to confront that blackguard Hollen?”
Joanna raised her chin in defiance.
“I have. I know precisely how busy you are, Master Drake, and regarded this as a matter of some urgency.”
Drake looked exasperated.
“You mean you’ve been there? To Brookview? But My Lady. It is my job to manage the estate for his Lordship. And my job to deal with men such as…such as—”
Drake’s Methodist upbringing would not supply a suitable epithet for the man they were discussing. Joanna talked over him.
“Your suspicions were correct, Master Drake. He seeks to exploit children to do his manual labor while men in the villages go to the poorhouse for want of paid work. It will not do.”
“You’ll get no argument from me on that, My Lady. But, it…it just isn’t proper—”
“Well, it is done now. I will leave it to you to keep an eye on the fellow. I’m sure my Father would not like that sort as a tenant.”
She softened her words with a smile.
“I know I can rely on you, Master Drake, you are a splendid fellow.”
She rode on, leaving the man tugging the brim of his hat to her and going his own way muttering. As Joanna rode up the main path toward the hall she considered her behavior.
What would Mama have done? Let’s face it, she would not have ridden halfway across the county to have words with a tenant farmer. Oh, will I never learn?
The house was an imposing edifice which dominated the surrounding landscape. But the park was falling into disrepair and, as she got closer, she could see the shuttered windows where Papa had closed off a wing of the house.
The bright sun that had so invigorated her earlier was being buried behind gray clouds. She walked her mare to the stables and handed her to a groom, before entering the house through the kitchen.
“Good afternoon to you, My Lady,” Bethany, the cook greeted her, her Welsh accent still strong after all the years she had lived in Horenshire.
Joanna greeted her as she strode through. Her lady’s maid, Lenora, emerged from the washroom as Joanna headed for the stairs. She dropped to a curtsy, her long dark hair tied up behind a headscarf, her pretty oval face turned down to the floor as Joanna passed.
“My Lady, you’re back. You do look serious. Did you perhaps not enjoy your ride?”
She was French and a believer in speaking her mind, no matter how many times she was scolded for it by Bethany. Joanna found it refreshing.
“I did and I did not, Lenora. I thought I had done the right thing. But now I have my doubts.”
“My Mother always told me to trust my instincts. Your head will lead you twelve different ways, but your stomach always knows the right path, she would say.”
Lenora was the same age as Joanna. And yet she came out with a new pearl of wisdom each day it seemed. Joanna laughed as she emerged from the servant’s staircase into the hallway that connected the private family rooms to the rear of the house with the public rooms at the front.
“In that case I should have listened to my stomach today, Lenora. It told me all along I was making a mistake. Please lay the fire in my room and heat some water for a bath.”
“At once, My Lady.” Lenora bobbed another curtsy and hurried away.
“Joanna! There you are,” came the voice of Tristan Lewis, Earl of Horenwall.
“I’m here, Papa,” Joanna replied.
Tristan stood in the doorway at the end of the hall. He leaned heavily on a cane. His clothes were the kind that had been fashionable for gentlemen twenty years before and his sparse hair was white. She hurried to his side, taking his arm gently and guiding him across the high-ceilinged receiving hall toward the sitting room.
“I thought I heard you. Where ever have you been? Louisa gave me some nonsense about you inspecting the farms.” Tristan sounded gruff, his voice hale, despite the obvious infirmity of his body.
Joanna sighed. “I was, Papa—”
As she reached for the door to the sitting room he put a hand on hers, holding her in place.
“We have a visitor, Child. A man I wish you to give every attention to. He has it within his power to take away our home and everything we hold dear.”
The air filled with the scrape of steel on steel. Asher danced out of range as Barnabas attacked, blade flicking for his opponent’s throat, then diverting in mid-thrust to slash for his thigh.
Asher deflected the attack at the last second, recognizing it in the momentary flicker of his enemy’s ice-blue eyes. The windows of Ranharth Manor’s great hall were shattered, wind and rain pelting into the once majestic room. Curtains billowed and Asher made use of the cover, darting aside from another lightning attack, using the ragged but still thick material as a screen.
Barnabas snarled, slashing and thrusting wildly.
“You can’t hide from me, Tradegrove. My family has ruled this land for three centuries. It is my right!”
Asher tossed his head to clear his unruly brown curls from his eyes. His skin was shaded by the sun, testimony to the long hours of working outdoors that he had spent in rebuilding his own estate. His eyes were dark and implacable.
“You have no right to the life of my Sister, Blackguard!” he rasped. “And you shall not have her!”
With a roar, Barnabas attacked again, his anger overcoming him. Asher had planned for it. As he fell back, feet skipping over the polished floor, now treacherously slick from the rain cascading in through the broken windows, he steered his opponent in the direction he wished. The questing blade cut at his shoulder. He did not feel it. It pricked at his chest. There was no pain.
“She will never love you, Cur!” Asher taunted, knowing his opponent’s anger would be his undoing.
Barnabas advanced with another roar of rage and Asher feigned a slip, stumbling and ducking as though about to fall. Barnabas came fast across the wet floor, thrusting with his rapier and in his haste, neglecting his footing. As his opponent staggered, feet slipping from beneath him, Asher shrugged off his act and lunged.
Blade striking with the speed of a viper, he knocked aside the other man’s rapier and with a cry of victory, struck home with a lunge that carried his blade through Barnabas’ heart. It was over, finally.
“Asher!” came Penelope’s voice. “Brother!”
He turned to the young woman with curling brown hair and hazel eyes who ran toward him.
At last she is safe from him.
She never reached his arms.
Asher awoke. He felt the night air chill on his sweat-soaked forehead, and on the moisture which stood on his cheek.
Not safe. Not in this world. Pray that in the next she is happy.
He lay in his bed staring at the canopy above him and remembering the joy he had felt. The waking world was not so joyful.
Such a cruel thing these dreams. Can they not allow a man peace, just for night?
“Penelope is dead,” he said aloud, voice hard. “Penelope was murdered by Barnabas Harrington. And I cannot prove it. I am powerless to avenge her.”
It was the rote response to the feelings that dream always engendered in him. The response that repaired the damage done to the wall he had built around himself. The response that dried tears and hardened his heart.
Life went on. Fair or unfair. There was still work to be done. He looked to the window, curtains never drawn. He had grown used to waking with the sunrise and had forbidden the servants from drawing them at night.
Throwing back the bedclothes, he crossed the cold, hardwood floor of his bedchamber to the window, leaning on the bare stone sill and looking out over Tradegrove. The grounds were as still as a picture, not yet fully tamed after the disrepair they had been allowed to fall into. Beyond them were the wild woods that had threatened to overwhelm the Manor and Park both when he had returned from America to claim his inheritance.
He knew there would be no more sleep for him. The day called. Already his mind was journeying along the paths of the tasks to be completed with the dawn. There was one that he was avoiding. And that realization made him determined to confront it. He walked to his writing table, in the corner of the room.
With an ember from the fire burning low in the grate he lit a lamp and took out materials for writing.
My Dear Friend Homebury,
The time has come.
Work to restore Tradegrove is continuing apace and is under the stewardship of a most capable man.
The mine at Torhead is working and the price of coal means my income is secure.
My duty now calls me to London. To society.
I trust you know how heavy a heart I have as I say this.
The final duty, as Duke Rowan of Tradegrove, and which I have long neglected is to find a wife and thence an heir. My duty to my family and my line calls me to it. I have neglected this duty for far too long.
You know how I despise London society. I do not need to tell you of the horror which fills me at the thought of going among such people. But duty is duty.
Could I ask that you find a suitable house for me to rent in town and provision it with servants and everything else that may be needed to make it habitable?
I trust your judgement and taste above all except that of your good lady. Her I judge to be above all.
I hope to travel to London inside the month and trust this missive finds you well.
Your friend and comrade,
Asher put down the pen and carefully blotted, then folded the paper before placing it in an envelope. The die was cast. He looked to the small portrait of Penelope he kept on his desk. It was painted on enamel and depicted her as a young woman of eighteen, her beauty shining from the painted surface.
“Oh how I miss you, my Dear Sister,” he whispered. “I know that all you ever wished was to see me happily married to a woman I love. But I do not think such things are possible for me. Love has brought me nothing but pain. But I will at least fill these halls with the sound of children again. And perhaps that will be enough.”
Joanna entered the sitting room, supporting her father. A man and a woman, both in their middle age and bearing a sense of supercilious superiority, occupied two chairs and sipped tea. They stood as Joanna and Tristan entered.
“My Lady. How nice to see you again,” said the woman.
She had a hooked nose and a beauty spot prominently displayed on her right cheek. Her figure was statuesque. She wore an expression that suggested there was an unpleasant odor in the room.
“It has certainly been too long.”
“Your Grace. Welcome back to Horenwall,” she acknowledged the man who stood a foot shorter than his wife and probably the same difference in width. He opened his mouth to speak but his wife spoke over him in a voice that would have carried outside the house.
“We had decided to spend some time in town and thought it time we inspected the house. I have not set foot inside since the passing of your dear Mother.”
Joanna smiled politely and inside fumed.
They speak as though this house were already theirs. As though Papa were already in the grave!
Joanna helped her father to a chair and then indicated that all should sit. The Duchess cast a critical eye over the room before doing so, as though to emphasize that she sat when she chose to and not before.
“You have allowed it to fall into some disrepair, Tristan,” she said accusingly.
“Time weighs heavy on us all,” Tristan replied.
“Nevertheless, you must be cognizant that in the absence of a male heir, this house and estate falls to my husband,” the Duchess said haughtily.
“Our means are not unlimited, Your Grace,” Tristan began but Lady Mortimer seemed determined not to allow any man in the room to speak.
“All the more reason for consideration of terms of ownership of this house. It must be passed through the male line not the female. Those are the terms of the entailment, a practice with long years of precedence. In the absence of a son it is your cousin, the Duke of Halifax, who inherits. We simply cannot countenance one of England’s great houses falling into disrepair. Can we, Joseph?”
The Duke opened his mouth to speak, but this time it was Joanna who cut him off. She put her teacup down with a clatter, dark eyes afire.
“You may legally inherit this house, but it is not yours yet. Forgive my abruptness but this is an intolerable way to speak to us in our own home. And if your only reason for inviting yourselves here was to rub our noses in our predicament then I, for one, would rather you were not here.”
The Duchess looked shocked, eyes wide and lips pursed. Her husband, the Duke, looked on with open mouth.
“What Joanna means to say—” Tristan began to offer.
“What she means to say is patently obvious,” the Duchess said with affront. “We are not welcome though this is…”
“May be,” said Joanna warningly.
“…our house,” the Duchess finished. “I had wished to take dinner here and inspect the bedrooms.”
“Well, the east wing is closed off because the roof leaks and the guest rooms in the west wing are terribly draughty. Perhaps you would be better taking rooms in Horenwall,” Joanna suggested with enthusiastic acid.
“No!” Tristan said sharply. “I would not hear of it. Joanna, your Mother would never see family put up in a tavern when we have beds to spare.” He pinned Joanna with stony eyes, making a sharp gesture with his hand. “I would deem it a great favor that you take dinner with us this evening, Your Grace,” he said.
The Duke of Halifax opened his mouth and the Duchess spoke.
“Apology noted, Cousin. I wonder if we may prevail upon your daughter to conduct us around the house. So that we may become familiar once again with this jewel of the county.”
She smiled and it was an expression of pure spite and malice. Joanna wished she was as free to express her anger as Master Hollen the farmer. Instead she followed her father’s advice.
What would Mother have done?
Lady Horenwall, mother to Joanna and Catherine had been, to her husband and daughters, the epitome of the English Lady. Joanna felt guilty at her outburst and embarrassed. She swallowed her bile and smiled sweetly.
“I would be delighted. More tea?”
“She is an insufferable witch!” Joanna exclaimed, slamming the door and storming across Catherine’s bedroom to throw herself into a chaise lounge beside the bed. Catherine sat up in her bed, wearing a white night dress, combing out her long dark hair. She looked pale, her lips bloodless but her eyes were bright and sharp.
“Who is?” she asked calmly.
“Duchess high-and-mighty Mortimer. Wife of our illustrious Cousin Joseph, Duke of Halifax. I have had to spend the past two, no three hours, escorting them around the house as though they were prospective buyers and I a property agent!”
“I didn’t know we had guests,” Catherine said with surprise.
“You were sleeping, Dear. I did pop my head in before beginning that interminable tour. You looked exhausted.”
Joanna forgot her anger, leaning forward and taking Catherine’s hand. She had always been a sickly child but the bouts of anemia she now suffered confined her to bed for long periods. Joanna worried for her constantly.
“Yes, today has been one of my gray days. I’m afraid,” Catherine said with a brave smile. “I’m sorry you had to put up with the Duchess all alone.”
Joanna climbed up beside her sister on the bed, drawing up her legs to sit cross legged. “I can cope. It is for Papa that I am most worried. It is simply beyond the pale for those two ghouls to be inspecting our family home. As though he were already…” she shuddered, “it is ghoulish.”
“Can nothing be done, Joanna?” Catherine asked innocently. “This…what is it called?”
Catherine was ten years Joanna’s junior and sheltered from the world due to her precarious health.
There are times when I envy your innocence, Catherine. Having no knowledge of the cruelty of man or the responsibilities of family or duty.
“It is called an entailment. Title and property must be passed through the male line. A gift from one of our ancestors, God rest him. And there is a way out of it, yes. I must marry.”
It was a solution that she had long known about. Long known of and rejected. She had no desire to be married. The death of her mother had left her father a shell of a man. She had been the love of his life and her death had cored him. His health had deteriorated sharply. There were still days when the Earl of Horenwall would not stir beyond the confines of his rooms, refusing to even be touched by daylight.
“It has not been an issue until now because…well…Papa’s health. I had put off thinking of it and that was unforgivable. Wasting my time with poetry and literature. My attempts at it anyway.”
“Joanna, I will not hear of it. You do not waste your time and there is nothing to forgive. No one can predict when they will fall in love. And I could not bear you to marry for less than what Mama and Papa had.”
Joanna kissed her sister’s hand. “My sweet Catherine. That is precisely what I do not want. I will not be so exposed, so vulnerable to another person. I cannot. But I must marry. A male grandchild for Papa would supplant Cousin Joseph, His Grace, the Duke of bloody Halifax.”
Catherine’s mouth opened in a shocked ‘O’ at Joanna’s swearing. Joanna raised her eyes to Heaven and made the sign of the cross. She had spent long enough among the ordinary folk of the farms and the village to pick up some choice phrases.
Forgive me, Mama, that was not the speech of a lady. I will try and do better.
A knock came at the door.
“Come in!” Joanna called.
Lenora put her head around the door. “My Lady, please come quickly it is his Lordship! He has collapsed!”
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