The name Isolde Ophelia Goodnight did rather spell a life of tragedy. Izzy could look at her situation and see just that. Motherless at a young age. Fatherless now, as well. Penniless. Friendless.
But she’d never been hopeless.
Because the name Isolde Ophelia Goodnight also suggested romance. Swooning, star-crossed, legendary romance. And for as long as she could remember, Izzy had been waiting—with dwindling faith and increasing impatience—for that part of her life to begin.
Once she’d grown old enough to understand her mother’s death, Izzy had consoled herself with the idea that this was all part of her epic tale. The heroines in fairy stories were always motherless.
When Papa overspent their income, and the maid was dismissed, she told herself the drudgery would pay off someday. Everyone knew that Cinderella had to scrub the floors before she could win the handsome prince.
By time she turned fifteen, their finances had improved, thanks to Papa’s writing success. Still no prince, but there was time. Izzy told herself she’d grow into her largish nose and that her frizzled hair would eventually tame itself.
She hadn’t, and it didn’t. No ugly-duckling-turned-swan here, either.
Her seventeenth birthday passed without any pricking of fingers.
At twenty-one, life forced a difficult truth on her somewhere on the road between Maidstone and Rochester. Real highwayman were neither devilishly charming nor roguishly handsome. They wanted money, and they wanted it quickly, and Izzy ought to be very glad they weren’t interested in her.
One by one, she’d let go of all those girlish dreams.
Then last year, Papa had died, and all the stories dried up completely. The money was gone soon after that. For the first time in her life, Izzy verged on true desperation.
Her cravings for romance were gone. Now she’d settle for bread. What fairy tales were left over for a plain, impoverished, twenty-six-year-old woman who’d never even been kissed?
She clutched the letter in her hand. There it was, in black ink on white paper. Her very last hope. She forced herself not to hold it too tightly, for fear it might crumble to dust.
Dear Miss Goodnight,
It is my duty as executor to inform you that the Earl of Lynforth has died. In his will, he left you—and each of his goddaughters—a bequest. Please meet me at Gostley Castle, near Woolington in the county of Northumberland, on this twenty-first of June to settle the particulars of your inheritance.
Frederick Trent, Lord Archer
A bequest. Perhaps it would be as much as a hundred pounds. Even twenty would be a windfall. She was down to shillings and pence.
When Gostley Castle came into view, Izzy gulped.
From a distance, it could have looked romantic. A collection of mismatched turrets and ranging, crenellated walls, studded amid rolling green fields. But the surrounding park had grown so wild and dense from neglect that by the time the castle came into view, she was already cowering in its shadow.
This castle didn’t welcome or enchant.
She almost worried it might pounce.
“Here we are, miss.” The driver didn’t seem to like it any better than Izzy did. He pulled his team to a halt well outside the barbican, a stone gatehouse set some distance from the castle itself.
After helping her down from the carriage, he turned up the collar of his coat and unloaded her baggage—a single, battered valise. He carried it to the stone steps of the ancient gatehouse, strode briskly back, jammed his hands in his pockets, and cleared his throat. Waiting.
Izzy knew what he was after. She’d paid the man in Woolington—he wouldn’t agree to transport her without payment in advance—but now he wanted an additional expression of thanks. She fished a sixpence from her purse. So few coins remained, the purse didn’t even rattle.
The driver pocketed her offering and touched his cap. “What was yer name again, miss?”
“Goodnight. Miss Izzy Goodnight.”
She waited to see if he would recognize it. Most of the literate people in England would, and a great many of their domestic servants, besides.
The driver only grunted. “Jes’ wanted to know it, in case someone comes around asking. If you’re never heard from again.”
Izzy laughed. She waited for him to laugh, too.
Soon driver, team, and carriage were nothing more than the fading crunch of wheels on the road.
Izzy picked up her valise and walked through the barbican. A stone bridge carried her over what once had been a moat but now was only a slimy green trickle.
She’d done a bit of research in advance of her journey. There wasn’t much to read. Only that Gostley Castle had once been the seat of the Rothbury dukedom, in Norman times.
It didn’t look inhabited now. There was no glass in many of the windows. No lights in them, either. There should have been a portcullis that dropped to bar the entrance—but there was nothing there. No door, no gate.
She walked through the archway and into the central, open courtyard.
“Lord Archer?” Her voice died in the air. She tried again. “Lord Archer, are you here?” This time, her call got a respectable echo off the flagstones. But no answer.
She was alone.
Dizzied from her strange surroundings and weak with hunger, Izzy closed her eyes. She coerced air into her lungs.
You cannot faint. Only ninnies and consumptive ladies swoon, and you are neither.
It started to rain. Fat, heavy drops of summer rain—the kind that always struck her as vaguely lewd and debauched. Little potbellied drunkards, those summer raindrops, chortling on their way to earth and crashing open with glee.
She was getting wet, but the alternative—seeking shelter inside one of the darkened arches—was less appealing by far.
A rustling sound made her jump and wheel. Just a raven taking wing. She watched it fly over the castle wall and away.
She laughed a little. Really. It was too much. A vast, uninhabited castle, rain, and now ravens, too? Someone was playing her a cruel trick.
Then she glimpsed a man across the courtyard, standing in a darkened archway.
And if he was a trick, he wasn’t a cruel one.
There were things in nature that took their beauty from delicate structure and intricate symmetry. Flowers. Seashells. Butterfly wings. And then there were things that were beautiful for their wild power and their refusal to be tamed. Snowcapped mountains. Churning thunderclouds. Shaggy, sharp-toothed lions.
This man silhouetted before her? He belonged, quite solidly, in the latter category.
So did the wolf sitting at his heel.
It couldn’t be a wolf, she told herself. It had to be some sort of dog. Wolves had long been hunted to extinction. The last one in England died ages ago.
But then … she would have thought they’d stopped making men like this, too.
He shifted his weight, and a slant of weak light revealed the bottom half of his face. She glimpsed a wide, sensual slash of a mouth. A squared jaw, dark with whiskers. Overlong hair brushed his collar. Or it would have, if he had a collar. He wore only an open-necked linen shirt beneath his coat. Buckskin breeches hugged him from slim hips to muscled thighs … and from there, his legs disappeared into a pair of weathered, dusty Hessians.
Oh, dear. She did have such a weakness for a pair of well-traveled boots. They made her desperate to know everywhere they’d been.
Her heart beat faster. This didn’t help with her lightheadedness problem.
“Are you Lord Archer?” she asked.
“No.” The word was low, unforgiving.
The beast at his heel growled.
“Oh. I-is Lord Archer here?”
“Are you the caretaker?” she asked. “Are you expecting him soon?”
“No. And no.”
Was that amusement in his voice?
She swallowed hard. “I received a letter. From Lord Archer. He asked me to meet him here on this date regarding some business with the late Earl of Lynforth’s estate. Apparently he left me some sort of bequest.” She extended the letter with a shaking hand. “Here. Would you care to read it for yourself?”
That wide mouth quirked at one corner. “No.”
Izzy retracted the letter as calmly as she could manage and replaced it in her pocket.
He leaned one shoulder against the archway. “Aren’t we going to continue?”
“This game.” His voice was so low it seemed to crawl to her over the flagstones, then shiver up through the soles of her feet. “Am I a Russian prince? No. Is my favorite color yellow? No. Would I object if you were to come inside and remove every stitch of your damp clothing?” His voice did the impossible. It sank lower. “No.”
He was just making sport of her now.
Izzy clutched her valise to her chest. She didn’t want Snowdrop getting wet. “Do you treat all your visitors this way?”
Idiot. She cursed herself and braced for another low, mocking “no.”
He said, “Only the pretty ones.”
Oh, Lord. She ought to have guessed it earlier. The fatigue and hunger had done something to her brain. She could almost believe the castle, the ravens, the sudden appearance of a tall, dark, handsome man. But now he was flirting with her?
She had to be hallucinating.
The rain beat down, impatient to get from the clouds to the earth. Izzy watched drops pinging off the flagstones. Each one seemed to chisel a bit more strength from her knees.
The castle walls began to spin. Her vision went dark at the edges.
“I … Forgive me, I …”
Her valise dropped to the ground.
The beast snarled at it.
The man moved out from the shadows.
And Izzy fainted dead away.
The girl crumpled to the flagstones with a wet thud.
Ransom winced at the irony. Despite all that had happened, he still had the ladies swooning. One way or another.
He released Magnus with a low command. Once the dog had completed his wet-nose investigation, Ransom brushed the animal aside and took his turn.
He ran his hands over the limp heap of joints and limbs before him. Damp muslin, worn boots. Small hands, slender wrists. There wasn’t much of her. She seemed to be half petticoats, half hair.
And God, what hair. Thick, curly, abundant.
He felt the warm huff of her breath against his hand. He slid his touch lower, searching for the girl’s heartbeat.
His palm brushed over a full, rounded breast.
A surge of … something … passed through him, unbidden. Not lust, just male awareness. Apparently, he should stop thinking of her as “the girl.” She was most definitely “the woman.”
Ransom cursed. He didn’t want visitors. Especially not visitors of the female kind. He had enough of that with the local vicar’s daughter, Miss Pelham. She came around the castle every week or so, offering to read him sermons or some other foolishness. At least when Miss Pelham made her sunny march up the hill, basket of good deeds threaded over one arm, she came expecting to find a scarred, unshaven wreck of a man. And she was far too sensible to faint at the sight.
This woman crumpled on the flagstones hadn’t been expecting Ransom.
What was it she’d said about a Lord Archer? She had a letter on her somewhere that explained it, but he couldn’t bother with that now. He needed to get her inside—warm her up, give her a splash of whisky and milk in her tea.
The sooner she recovered her senses, the sooner she could leave.
He wrestled her sodden, unconscious form into his arms and stood. He adjusted her weight, finding the fulcrum between her hips and her shoulders, then made his way up the stairs to take her inside.
He counted the steps out. Five … six … seven …
As he took the eighth step, she shifted in his arms. He froze, bracing for unpleasantness. She’d fainted dead at her first sight of him. If she woke to find him carrying her now, she might expire from the shock. Or split his eardrums with a shriek. Just what he didn’t need—an injury to his hearing.
She mumbled faintly but didn’t rouse. No, she did something far worse.
Slid sideways, curling into his embrace, and rubbed her cheek against his chest, seeking warmth. She gave a faint, husky moan.
Another surge of … something … passed through him. He paused for a moment, absorbing the sharp invasion of it before he continued his climb.
Gods be cursed. The one thing Ransom wanted less right now than a swooning woman? A nuzzling woman. Since his injury, he didn’t like anyone too close. And he didn’t require any nuzzling, thank you. He had a dog.
The dog led the way as he reached the top of the stairs and turned to enter the castle’s great hall. This space was his encampment, of sorts. He slept here, he ate here, he drank here, he … cursed and brooded here. His manservant, Duncan, was always after him to open more of the castle’s rooms, but Ransom didn’t see the point.
He settled the girl—the woman—on the decrepit horsehair sofa, pushing it nearer the fire. The sofa legs screeched across the stone floor. He waited to see if she’d stir.
He gave her shoulder a mild shake.
“Wake,” he said loudly. “Look there. It’s Lord Archer.”
Ransom drew up a chair and sat nearby. Five seconds later, he rose again to pace. Twenty-three paces to the leftmost window, then back. He had his strengths, but patience wasn’t one of them. Inaction made him a growly, ill-tempered beast.
When Duncan returned, he could send for a doctor. But it could be hours before Duncan returned.
Magnus whined and nosed about his boots.
Ransom sent the dog to its rug by the fire. Then he crouched beside the sofa and placed one hand on the woman’s neck. He slid his touch along that sleek, delicate column until he found her pulse with his fingertips. The heartbeat was weaker than he would have liked it to be, and rabbit-fast. Damn.
She turned her head, sliding her soft cheek into his hand. There she went again, nuzzling. The friction released gentle hints of a soft, feminine fragrance.
“Temptress,” he muttered bitterly.
If he had to have a swooning, nuzzling woman collapse on his doorstep, why couldn’t it be one who smelled of vinegar and old cheese? No, he had to get one scented of rosemary and sweet, powdered skin.
He pressed his thumb to her rain-splashed cheek. “For God’s sake, woman. Wake.”
Maybe she’d struck her head on the flagstones. He thrust his fingers into her upswept hair, yanking out her hairpins. There were dozens of them, it seemed, and with each one he pulled, the mass of hair seemed to grow wilder. Angrier. The curling locks tangled and knotted between his fingers, obstructing his explorations. By the time he’d satisfied himself that her skull was intact, he could have believed that hair was alive. And hungry.
But her skull was in one piece, with no knots or swellings that he could detect. And she still hadn’t made a sound.
Perhaps she was injured somewhere else. Or maybe her corset was too tight.
There was only one way to tell.
With a gruff sigh, he shook off his coat and turned up his sleeves. Rolling her onto her side, he brushed her predatory hair away and set his fingers to the task of undoing the buttons down the back of her frock. He was out of practice, but there were some things a man didn’t forget. How to undo a woman’s buttons was one.
How to unlace a woman’s stays was another.
As he yanked the laces from the corset grommets, he felt her rib cage expand beneath his palms. She shifted and released a throaty, sensual sigh.
He froze. Another surge of … something … pulsed through his veins, and this time he couldn’t dismiss it as some tender nonsense.
This was lust, pure and simple. He’d gone a dangerously long time without a woman in his arms.
He pushed the physical response aside. With brisk, businesslike motions, he pulled the sleeves of her frock down her arms, feeling for any broken bones along the way. Then he began working the bodice down to her waist. He couldn’t let her just lie there in wet sacking, or she’d catch a chill.
He would deserve a great deal of gratitude for this when she awoke—but somehow he doubted he’d get it.
Izzy came to herself with a jolt.
She was indoors. Inside the castle. Pillars sprouted around her like ancient trees, soaring up to support the vaulted ceiling of a cavernous great hall.
Looking about, she saw scattered furnishings in various states of decay. The near end of the hall featured a massive hearth. If there weren’t a roaring fire in it, Izzy had no doubt she could stand inside that fireplace without even crouching. The blaze within fed not on splits of wood, or even logs, but on full tree trunks.
She lay on a dusty, lumpy sofa. A rough, woolen blanket had been drawn over her body. She peeked beneath it and cringed. She’d been divested of her frock, stays, petticoats, and boots. Only her chemise and stockings remained.
“Oh dear heavens.”
She put a hand to her unbound hair. Her Aunt Lilith was right. She’d always harped on Izzy during those summers in Essex. “It doesn’t matter that no one will see them,” she’d squawked. “Always—always—wear a clean shift and stockings. You never know when you might meet with an accident.”
Oh … dear … heavens. It all came back to her now. The rain … her swoon …
Izzy looked up, and there he was.
“You’re awake,” he said, without turning to confirm it.
“Yes. Where are my things?”
“Your valise is two paces inside the entry, to the right.”
Izzy twisted her neck and glimpsed the valise, right where he’d said it would be. It wasn’t moving or open. Snowdrop must still be asleep. That was a relief.
“Your frock is there.” He gestured toward where her frock hung over the back of two upright chairs, drying by the fire. “Your petticoats are draped over the far table, and your corset is on the other s—”
“Thank you.” Izzy wanted to die. The whole situation was mortifying. Swooning at a handsome stranger’s boots was embarrassing enough, but hearing him catalog her underthings? She clutched the blanket to her chest. “You needn’t have troubled.”
“You needed to breathe. And I needed to be sure you weren’t bleeding or broken anywhere.”
She wasn’t certain why that required undressing her to her shift. A quick glance would tell him if she were bleeding.
“Are you ill?” he asked.
“No. At least, I don’t think so.”
“Are you with child?”
Her burst of laughter startled the dog. “Definitely not. I’m not the sort of woman who faints, I promise you. I just hadn’t eaten much today.” Or yesterday, or the day before that.
Her voice was hoarse and raspy. Perhaps she was catching a cold. That would help explain the fainting, too.
Throughout this conversation, her host remained at the hearth, facing away from her. His coat stretched tight at the shoulders but hung a bit loose about his midsection. Perhaps he’d recently lost some bulk. But there was plenty of him remaining, and all of it was lean and hard. His body was much like this great hall around them. Suffering from a bit of neglect, but impressively made and strong to the bones.
And that voice. Oh, it was dangerous.
She didn’t know which upset her more: That this shadowy, handsome stranger had made so free with her person—carrying her in his arms, unlacing her stays, taking down her hair, and stripping her to her thinnest undergarments? Or that she’d somehow slept through the whole thing?
She snuck another glance at him, silhouetted by orange firelight.
The latter. Definitely the latter. The most exciting quarter hour of her life, and she’d spent it completely insensible. Izzy, you fool.
But though she had no firm recollection of being carried in from the rain, her body seemed to have a memory of its own. Beneath her clothing, she smoldered with the sensation of strong hands on chilled flesh. As if his touch had been imprinted on her skin.
“Thank you,” she said. “It was good of you to carry me inside.”
“There’s tea. To your left.”
A chipped mug of steaming liquid sat on a table nearby—to her left, as he’d said. She took it in both hands, letting its warmth seep into her palms before lifting it for a long, nourishing draught.
Fire raced down her throat.
She coughed. “What’s in this?”
“Milk. And a drop of whisky.”
Whisky? She sipped again, not in a position to be particular. When approached with the appropriate caution, the brew wasn’t so bad. As she swallowed, an earthy, smoky heat curled through her.
On the same table, she found a small loaf of bread and broke into it, famished.
“Who are you?” she asked between mouthfuls. Aunt Lilith would not be pleased with her manners.
“I’m Rothbury. You’re in my castle.”
Izzy swallowed hard. This man claimed to be the Duke of Rothbury? It seemed too much to believe. Shouldn’t dukes have servants to make their tea and dress them in proper attire?
God help her. Perhaps she was trapped with a madman.
Izzy drew the blanket close. Despite her doubts, she wasn’t going to risk provoking him.
“I didn’t realize,” she said. “Should I address you as ‘Your Grace?’”
“I don’t see the point of it. Within a few hours, I hope you’ll refer to me as ‘That ill-mannered wretch you importuned one rainy afternoon and then never pestered again.’”
“I don’t mean to be trouble.”
“Beautiful women are always trouble. Whether they mean to be or not.”
More teasing. Or more lunacy. Izzy wasn’t sure which. The only thing she knew for certain was that she was no kind of beauty. It didn’t matter how she pinched her cheeks or pinned back her aggressively curly hair. She was plain, and there seemed no getting around it.
This man, however, was anything but ordinary. She watched him as he tossed more wood on the blaze. He added a log as thick as her thigh, but he handled it with all the ease of tinder.
“I’m Miss Isolde Goodnight,” she said. “Perhaps you’ve heard the name.”
He poked the fire. “Why would I have heard the name?”
“My father was Sir Henry Goodnight. He was a scholar and historian, but he was most well-known as a writer.”
“Then that explains why I don’t know him. I am not a reader.”
Izzy looked to the arched windows. The afternoon was darkening. The lengthening shadows worried her, as did the fact that she’d yet to make out the entirety of her host’s face. She was growing anxious to see him, look into his eyes. She needed to know just what sort of man held her at his mercy.
“It seems Lord Archer might be some time yet,” she ventured. “Might we have a candle or two while we wait?”
After a grudging pause, he took a straw, lit it in the fire, and, carefully cupping the flame with one palm, moved it to a taper fixed atop the mantel.
The task seemed to cause him inordinate difficulty. The candlewick caught, but he held the straw in place until it burned down to his fingertips. He cursed under his breath and whipped it with his hand, shaking out the flame.
“I hate to be a bother. It’s just that I’m …” She didn’t know why she was admitting it, except that she felt sorry he’d burned himself to increase her comfort. “I’m not fond of the dark.”
He turned to her, bearing the candle. One side of his wide mouth tipped, like a scale weighted with irony. “I haven’t made my peace with it either.”
The new flame cast golden light on his face. Izzy startled. His sculpted, aristocratic features did much to bolster his claim of being a duke. But something else about his face told a different story.
A dramatic, uneven scar sliced from his brow to his temple, ending on the crest of his right cheekbone. Though the candle flame flickered and sparked, his eyes didn’t narrow or focus.
The realization flared within her. At last, something about this day made sense.
It all made sense.
The darkened room, his refusal to read her letter, his manual assessment of her health. His repeated mentions of Izzy’s beauty despite what should have been ample evidence to the contrary.
He was blind.
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