Castles Ever After Series, Castles Ever After 4, Spindle Cove 5 (crossover)
On the night of the Parkhurst ball, someone had a scandalous tryst in the library.
All Charlotte Highwood knows is this: it wasn’t her. But rumors to the contrary are buzzing. Unless she can discover the lovers’ true identity, she’ll be forced to marry Piers Brandon, Lord Granville—the coldest, most arrogantly handsome gentleman she’s ever had the misfortune to embrace. When it comes to emotion, the man hasn’t got a clue.
But as they set about finding the mystery lovers, Piers reveals a few secrets of his own. The oh-so-proper marquess can pick locks, land punches, tease with sly wit … and melt a woman’s knees with a single kiss. The only thing he guards more fiercely than Charlotte’s safety is the truth about his dark past.
Their passion is intense. The danger is real. Soon Charlotte’s feeling torn. Will she risk all to prove her innocence? Or surrender it to a man who’s sworn to never love?
“Artful diversions, a clever heroine, and intense passion are all brought together by Dare’s smart writing and spot-on matchmaking. There’s just the right amount of intrigue, and even the minor characters have layered personalities. The irresistibly provocative, classy love scenes set the bar high for other historical romance novels.” ~ Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“Vintage Tessa Dare… heartwarming romance and cheeky, laugh-out-loud banter.” ~ TheRomanceReviews.com
“An irrepressible, independent-minded heroine and a responsible hero who’s leading two lives fall for each other in a rollicking and passionate romp…” ~Library Journal (starred review)
Nottinghamshire, Autumn 1819
The gentleman in black turned down the corridor, and Charlotte Highwood followed.
Stealthily, of course. It wouldn’t do to let anyone see.
Her ears caught the subtle click of a door latch—down the passage, to the left. The door to Sir Vernon Parkhurst’s library, if her recollection served.
She hesitated in an alcove, engaging herself in silent debate.
In the grand scheme of English society, Charlotte was a wholly unimportant young woman. To intrude on the solitude of a marquess—one to whom she hadn’t even been introduced—would be the worst sort of impertinence. But impertinence was preferable to the alternative: another year of scandal and misery.
Distant music spilled from the ballroom. The first few strains of a quadrille. If she meant to act, it must be now. Before she could talk herself out of it, Charlotte tiptoed down the corridor and put her hand on the door latch.
Desperate mothers called for desperate measures.
When she opened the door, the marquess looked up at once. He was alone, standing behind the library desk.
And he was perfect.
By perfect, she didn’t mean handsome—although he was handsome. High cheekbones, a squared jaw, and a nose so straight God must have drawn it with a rule. But everything else about him declared perfection, as well. His posture, his mien, his dark sweep of hair. The air of assured command that hovered about him, filling the room.
Despite her nerves, she felt a prickle of curiosity. No man could be perfect. Everyone had flaws. If the imperfections weren’t apparent on the surface, they must be hidden deep inside.
Mysteries always intrigued her.
“Don’t be alarmed,” she said, closing the door behind her. “I’ve come to save you.”
“Save me.” His low, rich voice glided over her like fine-grain leather. “From . . . ?”
“Oh, all kinds of things. Inconvenience and mortification, chiefly. But broken bones aren’t outside the realm of possibility.”
He pushed a desk drawer closed. “Have we been introduced?”
“No, my lord.” She belatedly remembered to curtsy. “That is, I know who you are. Everyone knows who you are. You’re Piers Brandon, the Marquess of Granville.”
“When last I checked, yes.”
“And I’m Charlotte Highwood, of the Highwoods you’ve no reason to know. Unless you read the Prattler, which you probably don’t.”
Lord, I hope you don’t.
“One of my sisters is the Viscountess Payne,” she went on. “You might have heard of her; she’s fond of rocks. My mother is impossible.”
After a pause, he inclined his head. “Charmed.”
She almost laughed. No reply could have sounded less sincere. “Charmed,” indeed. No doubt “appalled” would have been the more truthful answer, but he was too well-bred to say it.
In another example of refined manners, he gestured toward the settee, inviting her to sit.
“Thank you, no. I must return to the ball before my absence is noted, and I don’t dare wrinkle.” She smoothed her palms over the skirts of her blush-pink gown. “I don’t wish to impose. There’s only one thing I came to say.” She swallowed hard. “I’m not the least bit interested in marrying you.”
His cool, unhurried gaze swept her from head to toe. “You seem to be expecting me to convey a sense of relief.”
“Well . . . yes. As would any gentleman in your place. You see, my mother is infamous for her attempts to throw me into the paths of titled gentlemen. It’s rather a topic of public ridicule. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase ‘The Desperate Debutante’?”
Oh, how she hated even pronouncing those words. They’d followed her all season like a bitter, choking cloud.
During their first week in London last spring, she and Mama had been strolling through Hyde Park, enjoying the fine afternoon. Then her mother had spied the Earl of Astin riding down Rotten Row. Eager to make certain the eligible gentleman noticed her daughter, Mrs. Highwood had thrust her into his path—sending an unsuspecting Charlotte sprawling into the dirt, making the earl’s gelding rear, and causing no fewer than three carriages to collide.
The next issue of the Prattler had featured a cartoon depicting a young woman with a remarkable resemblance to Charlotte, spilling her bosoms and baring her legs as she dove into traffic. It was labeled “London’s Springtime Plague: The Desperate Debutante.”
And that was that. She’d been declared a scandal.
Worse than a scandal: a public health hazard. For the rest of the season, no gentlemen dared come near her.
“Ah,” he said, seeming to piece it together. “So you’re the reason Astin’s been walking with a limp.”
“It was an accident.” She cringed. “But much as it pains me to admit it, there’s every likelihood my mother will push me at you. I wanted to tell you, don’t worry. No one’s expecting her machinations to work. Least of all me. I mean, it would be absurd. You’re a marquess. A wealthy, important, handsome one.”
Handsome, Charlotte? Really?
Why, why, why had she said that aloud?
“And I’m not setting my sights any higher than a black-sheep third son,” she rushed on. “Not to mention, there’s the age difference. I don’t suppose you’re seeking a May-December match.”
Lord Granville’s eyes narrowed.
“Not that you’re old,” she hastened to add. “And not that I’m unthinkably young. It wouldn’t be a May-December match. More like . . . June-October. No, not even October. June-late September at the very outside. Not a day past Michaelmas.” She briefly buried her face in her hands. “I’m making a hash of this, aren’t I?”
Charlotte walked to the settee and sank onto it. She supposed she would be seated after all.
He came out from behind the desk and sat on the corner, keeping one boot planted firmly on the floor.
Have out with it, she told herself.
“I’m a close friend of Delia Parkhurst. You’re an acquaintance of Sir Vernon’s. We’re both here in this house as guests for the next fortnight. My mother will do everything she can to encourage a connection. That means you and I must plan to avoid each other.” She smiled, attempting levity. “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a titled man in possession of a fortune should steer far clear of me.”
He didn’t laugh. Or even smile.
“That last bit . . . It was a joke, my lord. There’s a line from a novel—”
“Pride and Prejudice. Yes, I’ve read it.”
Of course. Of course he had. He’d served for years in diplomatic appointments overseas. After Napoleon’s surrender, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Vienna. He was worldly and educated and probably spoke a dozen languages.
Charlotte didn’t have many accomplishments, as society counted them—but she did have her good qualities. She was a good-natured, forthright person, and she could laugh at herself. In conversation, she generally put other people at ease.
Those talents, modest as they were, all failed her now. Between his poise and that piercing blue stare, talking to the Marquess of Granville was rather like conversing with an ice sculpture. She couldn’t seem to warm him up.
There must be a flesh-and-blood man in there somewhere.
She stole a sidelong look at him, trying to imagine him in a moment of repose. Lounging in that tufted leather chair with his boots propped atop the desk. His coat and waistcoat discarded; sleeves uncuffed and rolled to his elbows. Reading a newspaper, perhaps, while he took the occasional sip from a tumbler of brandy. A light growth of whiskers on that chiseled jaw, and his thick, dark hair ruffled from—
She startled. “Yes?”
He leaned toward her, lowering his voice. “In my experience, quadrilles—while they may feel interminable—do, eventually, come to an end. You had better return to the ballroom. For that matter, so had I.”
“Yes, you’re right. I’ll go first. If you will, wait ten minutes or so before you follow. That will give me time to make some excuse for leaving the ball entirely. A headache, perhaps. Oh, but then we have a whole fortnight ahead. Breakfasts are easy. The gentlemen always eat early, and I never rise before ten. During the day, you’ll have your sport with Sir Vernon, and we ladies will no doubt have letters to write or gardens to pace. That will see us through the days well enough. Tomorrow’s dinner, however . . . I’m afraid that will have to be your turn.”
“To feign indisposition. Or make other plans. I can’t be claiming a headache every evening of my stay, can I?”
He extended his hand and she took it. As he drew her to her feet, he kept her close.
“Are you quite sure you’ve no marital designs on me? Because you seem to be arranging my schedule already. Rather like a wife.”
She laughed nervously. “Nothing of the sort, believe me. No matter what my mother implies, I don’t share her hopes. We’d be a terrible match. I’m far too young for you.”
“So you’ve made clear.”
“You’re the model of propriety.”
“And you’re . . . here. Alone.”
“Exactly. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and yours is clearly—”
“Kept in the usual place.”
Charlotte was going to guess, buried somewhere in the Arctic Circle. “The point is, my lord, we have nothing in common. We’d be little more than two strangers inhabiting one house.”
“I’m a marquess. I have five houses.”
“But you know what I mean,” she said. “It would be disaster, through and through.”
“An existence marked by tedium and punctuated by misery.”
“We’d be forced to base our entire relationship on sexual congress.”
“Er . . . what?”
“I’m speaking of bedsport, Miss Highwood. That much, at least, would be tolerable.”
Heat bloomed from her chest to her hairline. “I . . . You . . .”
As she desperately tried to unknot her tongue, the subtle hint of a smile played about his lips.
Could it be? A crack in the ice?
Relief overwhelmed her. “I think you are teasing me, my lord.”
He shrugged in admission. “You started it.”
“I did not.”
“You called me old and uninteresting.”
She bit back a smile. “You know I didn’t mean it that way.”
Oh, dear. This wouldn’t do. If she knew he could tease, and be teased in return, she would find him much too appealing.
“Miss Highwood, I am not a man to be forced into anything, least of all matrimony. In my years as a diplomat, I’ve dealt with kings and generals, despots and madmen. What part of that history makes you believe I could be felled by one matchmaking mama?”
She sighed. “The part where you haven’t met mine.”
How could she make him see the gravity of the situation?
Little could Lord Granville know it—he probably wouldn’t care if he did—but there was more at stake for Charlotte than gossip and scandal sheets. She and Delia Parkhurst hoped to miss the next London season entirely, in favor of traveling the Continent. They had it all planned out: six countries, four months, two best friends, one exceedingly permissive chaperone—and absolutely no stifling parents.
However, before they could start packing their valises, they needed to secure permission. This autumn house party was meant to be Charlotte’s chance to prove to Sir Vernon and Lady Parkhurst that the rumors about her weren’t true. That she wasn’t a brazen fortune hunter, but a well-behaved gentlewoman and a loyal friend who could be trusted to accompany their daughter on the Grand Tour.
Charlotte could not muck this up. Delia was counting on her. And she couldn’t bear to watch all her dreams dashed again.
“Please, my lord. If you would only agree to—”
In an instant, his demeanor transformed. He went from cool and aristocratic to sharply alert, turning his head toward the door.
She heard it, too. Footsteps in the corridor. Approaching.
Whispered voices, just outside.
“Oh, no,” she said, panicked. “We can’t be found here together.”
No sooner had she uttered the words than the library became a whirlwind.
Charlotte wasn’t even certain how it happened.
Had she bolted in panic? Had he swept her into his arms somehow?
One moment, she was staring in mute horror at the scraping, turning door latch. The next, she was ensconced in the library’s window seat, concealed by heavy velvet drapes.
Pressed chest to chest with the Marquess of Granville.
The man she had meant to avoid at all costs.
She had the lapels of his coat clutched in her hands. His arms were around her, tight. His hands rested flat against her back—one at her waist, the other between her shoulders. She stared directly into his immaculate white cravat.
Despite the awkwardness of their position, Charlotte vowed not to move or make a sound. If they were discovered like this, she would never recover. Her mother would sink her talons into Lord Granville and refuse to let go. That was, if Charlotte didn’t expire of mortification first.
However, as the moments crawled past, it seemed increasingly unlikely that she and Granville would be discovered.
Two people had entered the room, and they wasted no time making use of it.
The sounds were subtle, hushed. Muted giggles and the rustling of fabric.
Perfume filtered through the draperies in a thick, pungent wave.
She slid her gaze upward, searching the darkness for Granville’s reaction. He looked directly ahead, impassive as that ice sculpture again.
“Do you think he noticed?” a male voice murmured.
In reply, a woman’s husky whisper: “Hush. Be quick.”
A sense of dread rose in Charlotte’s chest.
The dread was compounded by several moments of soft, distressingly wet sounds.
Please, she prayed, squeezing her eyes shut. Please don’t let this be what I suspect it to be.
Her prayer went unanswered.
Rhythmic noises began. Rhythmic, creaking noises that she could only imagine to be originating from a desktop—one being rocked violently on its legs. And just when she’d steeled herself to endure that much—
That was when the grunting started.
The human body was such a strange thing, she mused. People had eyelids to close when they wanted to rest their sight. They could close their lips to avoid unpleasant tastes. But there was no such appendage to block out sounds.
Ears couldn’t be shut. Not without the use of one’s hands, and she didn’t dare move those. The window seat was too narrow. Even the smallest motion could disturb the draperies and give them away.
She had no choice but to listen to it all. Even worse, to know that Lord Granville was listening, as well. He, too, must be hearing every creak of the desk, each animalistic grunt.
And, within moments, every keening wail.
Good heavens. Was the woman reeling with pleasure, or reciting vowels in grammar school?
A mischievous tickle of laughter rose in Charlotte’s throat. She tried to swallow it or clear it away, to no avail. It must have been nerves or the sheer awkwardness of the situation. The more she told herself not to laugh—reminded herself that her reputation, her journey with Delia, and the entirety of her future rested on not laughing—the greater the impulse grew.
She bit the inside of her cheek. She pressed her lips together, desperate to contain it. But despite her best efforts, her shoulders began to convulse in spasms.
The lovers’ pace quickened, until the creaking became a sharp, doglike, yipping noise. The unseen man released a throaty crescendo of a growl. “Grrrraaaaagh.”
Charlotte lost the battle. The laughter erupted from her chest.
All would have been lost, if not for Lord Granville’s hand sliding to the back of her head. With a flex of his arm, he brought her face to his chest, burying her laughter in his waistcoat.
He held her tightly while her shoulders shook and tears streamed down her cheeks, containing her explosion in the same way a soldier might leap on a grenade.
It was the strangest hug she’d ever experienced in her life, but also the one she’d most desperately needed.
And then, mercifully, the entire scene was over.
The lovers engaged in a few minutes of parting whispers and kisses. Whatever fabric had been shoved aside was gathered and rearranged in place. The door opened, then closed. Only a faint whiff of perfume lingered.
There were no more sounds, save for a fierce, steady thumping.
Lord Granville’s heartbeat, she realized.
Apparently his heart wasn’t buried in the Arctic Circle after all.
Drawing a deep, sudden breath, he released her.
Charlotte wasn’t sure where to look, much less what to say. She dabbed her eyes with her wrists, then ran her hands down the front of her gown, making sure she was all of a piece. Her hair had probably suffered the worst of it.
He cleared his throat.
Their eyes met.
“Dare I hope you’re too innocent to understand what just went on here?” he asked.
She gave him a look. “There’s innocent, and then there’s ignorant. I might be the first, but I am not the second.”
“That’s what I feared.”
“Fear is the word for it,” she said, shuddering. “That was . . . horrific. Scarring.”
He tugged on his cuff. “We needn’t speak of it further.”
“But we’ll think of it. Be haunted by it. It’s burned in our memories. Ten years from now, we could both be married to other people and have full, rich lives of our own. Then one day we’ll meet by chance in a shop or a park, and”—she snapped her fingers—“our thoughts will travel immediately to this window seat.”
“I heartily intend to banish this incident from my thoughts forever. I suggest you do the same.” He drew aside a fold of the drapery. “It should be safe now.”
He went first, making the large step down to the floor. She was amazed again at how he’d managed to hide them both so quickly. His reflexes must be remarkable.
He found the cord for tying back the draperies and began to secure one side in place.
Charlotte gathered her skirt, preparing to make her own descent from the ledge.
“Wait a moment,” he said. “I’ll help you.”
But she’d already begun, and what was meant to be a graceful step turned into a clumsy tumble. He lunged to break her fall. By the time she’d found her feet and steadied herself, she was right back in his arms.
His strong, protective arms.
“Thank you,” she said, feeling overwhelmed. “Again.”
He looked down at her, and again she caught that hint of a sly, appealing smile. “For a woman who wants nothing to do with me, you fling yourself in my direction with alarming frequency.”
She disentangled herself, blushing.
“I should hate to see how you treat a man you admire,” he said.
“At this rate, I’ll never have a chance to admire anyone.”
“Don’t be absurd.” He retrieved the dropped drapery cord. “You are young, pretty, and possessed of both cleverness and vivacity. If a few tangled reins in Rotten Row convince every red-blooded gentleman to avoid you, I fear for the future of this country. England is doomed.”
Charlotte went soft inside. “My lord, that’s kind of you to say.”
“It’s not kindness at all. It’s simple observation.”
“Nevertheless, I—” She froze. “Oh, goodness.”
They’d been discovered.