About the book
I'd turn the world upside down to get lost in my lust for you...
Miss Charlotte Manning has dedicated her life to a single mission: find her missing brother.
The daughter of a lowly Baron and parentless, she is determined to do everything to succeed. Even if that means losing her honor and innocence to a Duke she should have steered clear of.
When his sister disappears, Marcus Davenport, Duke of Ranfield, blames no one but Charlotte’s brother. Convinced of the culprit, he is determined to bring him to justice. Until his enchanting sister comes asking for his help and he must muster every ounce of his self-control to keep himself from giving in to the temptation.
As fate and scandal bring them closer, distant family members turn out to be more than just mere bystanders. Terrified that what awaits them at the end of their trail is a pair of corpses, Charlotte does the extreme. Because if you keep knocking on the Devil's door, sooner or later he'll invite you in.
The two riders outran the wind. A man and a woman, both dark of hair and eyes and both grinning and laughing as they strove to push their steeds ahead of the other. They sprinted across open parkland, away from a large country manor and toward a dark line of trees. The sky was dotted with a few clouds. Ahead a tall hedge loomed. To the right of the riders was a wide break in the hedge, through which a roadway of white gravel flowed, connecting a hard-packed earth track beyond to the manor.
The man steered his horse to the gap. The woman, falling behind, took one look and spurred her horse directly for the tall hedge. There was a moment in which her eyes opened wide with a blend of fear and exhilaration. A moment in which her horse jumped over the obstacle and the man, looking over his shoulder, stared aghast. He reached toward her instinctively. She turned her horse to face him.
“What on earth did you think you were doing, Charlotte?” he demanded, approaching her.
He had a round face, similar enough in shape to her own for the family resemblance to be obvious, even to those who didn’t know the two.
“Richard. I have jumped the Long Hedge, I don’t know how many times. Did you think that while you were away, I spent all of my time with the estate books?”
Charlotte had black, curling hair which, unencumbered by the hat, now cascaded around her face. Her cheeks were full and high, eyes brown and sparkling with humor. She smiled and her cheeks dimpled, giving her a mischievous appearance.
“Had I known that is how you were occupying yourself I would have returned from Spain, Napoleon or no Napoleon.” His face was stern, dark eyebrows making a straight line above his brown eyes. But his voice trembled with laughter and her beaming grin said she knew her brother was not being serious.
“There is also the matter of my beating you in our Parkway Dash. Finally,” she said. Her hat had been lost in the jump, the ribbon that had tied beneath her chin not secure enough to withstand the gale that had flown around her. She had dark curly hair and a long thin nose with a full-lipped mouth, the mirror of her brother. The difference between the two came from the lines around his eyes and mouth. Lines that had not been there before he had ridden off to war.
“You cheated,” he announced.
She stuck her tongue out at him. At that moment another pair of riders appeared from around a bend in the road. It ran away from the Park into the cover of trees, to re-emerge at some distance, climbing a gentle slope before it was lost to sight once more. A young woman with long fair hair spilling from beneath a white bonnet and a parasol in one hand, the other holding her reins, waved enthusiastically.
“Was that you, Lottie,” she asked with incredulity, “that we just saw jumping that simply enormous hedge?”
“Yes, it was my foolish sister. Good day to you, Jennifer.” Richard said, airily. He doffed his tall, conical hat revealing dark, unruly curls. Jennifer blushed, returning his greeting with a smile and turning away to protect her blushes.
For a long moment Richard’s eyes rested on her, met by occasional shy glances. The man next to Jennifer noted the interchange with a cold glance from Richard to Jennifer. He nudged his mount forward, interposing himself between the two. Richard greeted him. “My Lord Ranfield, this is an unexpected pleasure.”
Charlotte looked regretfully back toward the hat which was currently hanging from a branch in the hedge. She smoothed her curling hair back and brushed at the dark close-fitting jacket and riding skirt she wore. Both were thankfully of a dark enough blue that no splashes of mud thrown up by galloping hooves would show.
She remembered Marcus Davenport, Duke of Ranfield. Remembered the shock of golden blond hair, eyes as icy blue as a mountain lake. And a smile that demanded company. Heartfelt and joyous. She remembered the yearning as a girl of six-and-ten, dreaming of her first ball and being swept across the dance floor in his strong arms.
She froze as Marcus’ eyes alighted on her. He had a strong jaw, a lifted chin and almond-shaped eyes direct and unblinking. There was a rigidity to his face that had not been there before he marched away to war. Lines set as though carved from granite.
While his companion was as lively as the sun was bright, he was cool as an autumn mill pond. He wore a black coat, the tails of which spread behind him across the horse’s croup. A high-collared shirt was tied with an elaborate cravat. His boots shone mirror bright below pristine white pantaloons.
The tailoring spoke of wealth even if there was nothing about his appearance that shouted it. For a brief moment those icy-blue eyes held her still, as though he had caught her in his arms. Even breath seemed stilled. Even heartbeats.
What horrors did war bring to put such ice into those eyes? Those icy-blue eyes glanced over Charlotte like stones skimming smooth water. The moment might have been an eternity as far as she was concerned. Marcus looked to Richard, clearing his throat.
“Please, Richard. As partners in business let us put the formalities of rank aside. You called me Marcus once.”
Those icy-blue eyes started to turn to Charlotte again. Her pulse quickened as she saw the turn of his head. But he seemed to master himself, deliberately turning his horse to put his back to her. Charlotte felt crushed and then angry at herself for feeling so.
“I called you Sir in Spain.” Richard replied.
“And Marcus when you signed the contract to take over your late father’s share in our joint enterprise.”
Richard bowed in the saddle. “Have you met my sister, Charlotte?” he inquired.
“Don’t be silly, Dickie,” Jennifer said. She had ridden to Charlotte’s side and exchanged a brief but warm embrace. “Marcus remembers Lottie from our days as children.”
“I meant since then. We’ve all changed,” Richard said.
“I have not. Had the pleasure, I mean. I fear your debut occurred while I was abroad, Miss Manning,” Marcus said, finally turning back to her.
Charlotte gave a polite smile and resisted the urge to try and tidy her hair again. She offered her gloved hand and he held it. Both wore gloves but Charlotte felt as though there were nothing separating her skin from his. Her world contracted to a blue-eyed stare and the firm grasp of his hand on hers.
“I must say your escapade looked excessively dangerous to me. Not at all what I would expect from a lady.”
Charlotte made a point of clenching her teeth behind her lips, so that she could know she wasn’t gaping. How dare he! In one fell swoop to call her foolish and unladylike at the same time. She withdrew her hand and felt proud that she could do it. He is just a man whatever emotions he may once have engendered in a slip of a girl who did not know any better.
“I would certainly take stern action if I found Jennifer to be doing something so rash.” Marcus went on, seemingly oblivious to the stony face Charlotte now directed at him.
“Is that so, Lord Ranfield. I do not claim to be as expert on horses as you cavalrymen. But I have been riding since I was a girl and am most accomplished.”
Richard looked uncomfortably from Marcus to Charlotte, a fixed grin on his face. His mouth opened and closed as though he wished he could think of something to say.
“Do not listen to him, Lottie.” Jennifer said brightly. “I saw his face. You gave him a fright is all.”
“You’re mistaken,” Marcus said icily.
“I would agree,” Charlotte put in. But inside she smiled. Were you afraid for me, Marcus? In her head she gave him the name she would never dare utter aloud. The intimacy of thought sent a shiver through her.
Again, those icy-blue eyes alighted on hers and flew away like startled birds.
“Richard, old chap,” he said, directing his attention back to Charlotte’s brother. “It was my intention to call on you at home to continue our discussion on the matters on which we have been corresponding. Jennifer and I decided to return from town for the country air and I thought it would be an opportune moment.”
“Of course, Marcus. I have some thoughts to share with you after your last letter. Shall we return to the manor and we can discuss them?”
The two men turned and spurred their horses to a trot, side by side and already deep into conversation. Charlotte gripped her reins fiercely as she watched them go. Admonished like a wayward child and then dismissed. She had a mind to take her bay gelding back over the Long Hedge just to show him.
“I don’t remember him being so objectionable,” she commented as Jennifer nudged her horse into step beside her.
“He came back from the war with a layer of ice that hasn’t thawed yet, but he is the same man underneath. I think, perhaps, his reasons for bringing us back from London were not entirely to do with business,” Jennifer hinted with a smile.
Charlotte forced a laugh, still angry and glaring at Marcus’ back. “I’m sorry, Jennifer. But if that is the case he can go back to his business. I do not care to thaw him out.”
The shiver had returned at Jennifer’s words. A delightful frisson that she told herself was a remnant of a foolish girl’s fancy. She did not want a husband made of ice and stone.
Marcus refused to allow himself to look back at Charlotte. He listened to Richard talking of the opportunities in trade now that the war with France was over. He tried to focus his mind on thoughts of shipping and risk. But they kept returning to the vibrant, young girl of six-and-ten years that had been his last sight of Charlotte before leaving to fight the French.
She had been brilliantly looking forward to her introduction to society, to the balls especially. Now, she was a beautiful young woman, with a smile that said her earlier vibrancy had not been dulled by her transition to adulthood.
As he and Jennifer had crested the rise, to look down on Tondale Hall and its surrounding park, he had seen the mad jump of a female rider, sitting sidesaddle no less! To then learn the identity of that reckless individual had set a burr under his shirt. To be so uncaring of life and limb is almost criminal! What man could abide such wildness in a wife?
And yet he had spent four years soldiering, a life of danger and excitement, interspersed with terror and horror. But excitement, nonetheless. On his return to England he told himself as was proper that life was not about adventure and pulse-racing thrill. It was about propriety, civility and diligence. It was about work and duty.
The life of a soldier was the ambition of a boy who did not understand the world. But for one moment, as Marcus had watched that magnificent woman throw care to the wind he had felt the thrill that business and society simply could not provide.
He felt his heart race once more, simply recalling the sight. Her hair grasped and flung behind her, a mirror to the streaming tail of her horse. The scream of pure joy and passion carried to him on the wind. And the delicious moment, a heartbeat stretched to eternity, when he wondered if her leap would result in her fall.
How long has it been since any touched you in that way? How long since anything touched you in that way? It was plain foolishness. He was a responsible for lives and livelihoods, for an ancient name. He had put away the ambitions of boys when he took off his uniform for the last time.
But she had been magnificent.
Tondale Hall was a modest manor, a simple square in shape and with a facade that appealed to Marcus. He couldn’t abide delusions of grandeur and regarded extravagant displays of wealth as crude. The grounds spread out before the manor were well kept, nicely symmetrical and pleasing to the eye in their colors.
Dismounting outside the Halls’ front door, he handed the reins to a groom and found himself looking out over the grounds. The ladies were following at a sedate pace. He found himself watching Charlotte and tore his gaze away, deliberately making an inspection of the grounds.
“I do admire Tondale.” Marcus said, “such an accomplishment.”
“My mother deserves the credit,” Richard said, standing beside Marcus and surveying the land which he was now master of. “The manor and grounds were her singular passion. Father concentrated more on the mills and the price of cotton.”
“And now? Does Charlotte manage the estate while you take care of the business enterprise?” Marcus asked.
“Indeed. And she does an excellent job,” Richard said. “She’d do well in business herself, I think. If that was done.”
Marcus grunted. “A daredevil and a trader too,” he said softly.
And beautiful as life itself. He left the last an unspoken thought.
“What was that?” Richard inquired.
“Talking to myself, old chap.” Marcus said with forced bonhomie.
“Before we cloister ourselves indoors, shall we join the ladies in a turn around the park?” Richard asked.
Marcus wanted to cloister himself, to be immersed in the safe, dry world of business. But the reckless, adventurous part of him wanted very much to be in the company of Richard’s daring younger sister. The adventurous part won through.
Charlotte had decided to deviate from the direct route which the men had taken back to the Hall. She knew that Jennifer loved the color and fragrance of gardens and wanted to show off Tondale’s park to her.
She also wanted to discreetly question the other woman about her friendship with Richard. They dismounted in order to be on foot along the broad walks between the elaborate and glorious beds.
“This is so marvelous, Lottie.” Jennifer enthused. “Ranfield has not yet received the attentions of a proper gardener. Our staff do their best, but it’s not a priority for Marcus.”
“I learned a lot from Mama. I can certainly help you. Richard also has considerable knowledge, you know,” Charlotte said, casting a quick eye at her companion.
Jennifer blushed slightly. “Indeed. So many talents. He will make a fine husband.” She suddenly turned bright red. “For someone, I mean,” she finished hurriedly.
Charlotte laughed. “And why not you, dear Jennifer? It’s as plain as day to me that the two of you are simply meant for each other.”
“Oh, do you think so?” Jennifer was suddenly shy, not her natural disposition. “Well, he is handsome. And gentle and…oh, Lottie!” she suddenly gushed. “It would make me the happiest woman on earth. I do declare it.”
“And I. For my best friend and my brother to be man and wife would be perfect,” Charlotte agreed.
“Do you think they heard us? Here they come now,” Jennifer said.
They rounded a turn in the path, joining the broad central walk that framed Tondale Hall at its head. Richard and Marcus were descending the long flight of stone steps that connected the Hall to the park. Richard was pointing out areas of interest as they went and talking animatedly.
Charlotte watched them approach with no small fluttering in her chest. Marcus seemed to be listening attentively but every so often his gaze would rest on the two women, under the pretense of taking in the wider garden.
Or perhaps I am mistaken? Perhaps he does admire the park. But it did seem to Charlotte that those icy-blue eyes did seek her out. And when they did she felt drawn, like a moth to a candle flame.
“I thought it high time Ranfield had a tour of our excellent park, Charlotte,” Richard announced as the two men joined the women.
“Great minds think alike, Richard. I had the same thought,” Charlotte laughed.
“I should very much like to take this opportunity to learn all I can about horticulture and flowers and such,” Jennifer said.
“Well, then allow me to be your instructor for a brief time,” Richard said with a bow.
He courteously offered his arm which Jennifer accepted with a smile. They began to walk back along the main path, exchanging words, smiles and touches of the eyes.
Charlotte noticed Marcus frown as Richard escorted Jennifer away. Surely he can have no possible objection to our young lovers?
“Your Grace. I appear to be unescorted,” she said brightly. “Would you care to remedy the situation?”
Marcus tore his stare away from Richard and Jennifer and favored Charlotte with a bow.
“But of course. I too have sorely neglected my horticultural knowledge. It is quite the fashion just now, I believe.”
“Then you have come to the right place.” Charlotte took the offered arm and they began to walk in the same direction as the other couple.
“How have you found England since your return, Your Grace?” Charlotte asked.
It was not the question for polite but inconsequential conversation, but one that she held close to her heart.
“I ask because Richard has been noticeably changed by his experiences. He seems restless at times. I wondered if that was a hazard of a soldier’s life.”
“It can be, Miss Manning. The perils of war are also a source of great exhilaration. And Richard has seen his fair share of thrills.”
“Do you also find yourself seeking new adventures, then?” Charlotte asked mischievously.
“I am content to be ordinary,” Marcus replied stiffly.
They had reached the fountain which was the centerpiece of the gardens, Richard and Jennifer had circled the water and Jennifer was laughing with delight at something Richard had said.
Charlotte felt that her own companion was holding himself back carefully. The arm she held was quite rigid. After all I am only keeping him company to allow Richard and Jennifer the chance to spend some time together.
But she could not help but remember the excitement she had once felt at Marcus’ presence. When I was a slip of a girl with very little sense and a surfeit of emotion. That same excitement had returned when she had seen Marcus earlier. When she had realized that he must have witnessed her daring leap over the Long Hedge.
“Is that how you see yourself? I believe many would take exception to that view,” Charlotte said.
“Indeed. They would be the more deceived,” Marcus replied formally.
“Do you still enjoy dancing, Your Grace?” Charlotte asked, her boldness almost taking her breath away.
The question seemed to surprise him. “I…I have not had much occasion for dancing. First the war, then taking over the estate after father’s death.”
“I had once looked forward very much to being asked to dance with you, when I had my coming-out ball. But you disappeared to Spain and I was left with some wholly inadequate partners,” Charlotte said.
Marcus looked at her. “I had no idea my company was so…sought after.”
“For an impressionable young girl you were terrifying. But I recall you seemed quite the dancer.”
Charlotte noticed the ghost of a smile cross Marcus’ lips and congratulated herself on chipping away at his icy demeanor.
“I did quite enjoy a turn, I must admit. And would have been very glad to do you the honor,” Marcus said with a bow of his head.
Charlotte found herself blushing furiously. She hid the flush by pointing out a bed of roses.
“Aren’t these beautiful? And such fragrance. This is quite my favorite part.”
“Yes,” Marcus agreed. “Quite beautiful.”
He lingered over the words and his eyes rested on Charlotte far more than the flowers.
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