Returning home to Cornwall after an unspeakable tragedy, Sir Gideon Trevithick comes upon a defiant beauty in danger and vows to protect her whatever the cost. He’s dismayed to discover that she’s none other than Lady Charis Weston, England’s wealthiest heiress—and that the only way to save her from the violent stepbrothers determined to steal her fortune is to wed her himself! Now Gideon must hide the dark secrets of his life from the bride he desires more with every heartbeat.
She promised to show him how to love—and desire—again . . .
Charis has heard all about Gideon, the dangerously handsome hero with the mysterious past. She’s grateful for his help but utterly unwilling to endure a marriage of convenience—especially to a man whose touch leaves her breathless. Desperate to drive him mad with passion, she would do anything to make Gideon lose control—and fall captive to irresistible, undeniable sin.
Winchester, early February, 1821
“Good God, what have we here?”
The man’s deep voice pierced Charis’s pain-ridden doze. She flinched, stirring from her cramped position. For one dazed moment, she wondered why she was shivering in fetid straw, instead of snuggled in her bed at Holcombe Hall.
Blazing agony struck and she stifled an involuntary moan. And a curse for her rank stupidity.
How could she forget the danger long enough to fall asleep?
But she’d been blind with exhaustion when she’d stumbled into the stable behind the sprawling inn. Unable to manage another step even though she hadn’t come far enough to be safe.
Now she wasn’t safe at all.
The light from the man’s lantern dazzled her bleary eyes. She discerned little more than a tall shape looming outside the stall. Choking with panic, she clawed upright until she huddled against the rough planking. Blood pulsed like thunder in her ears.
Muffling a whimper as she moved her injured left arm, Charis crossed shaking hands over her torn bodice. Scenting her terror, the big chestnut horse that filled most of the space shifted restively.
As the man lifted the lantern to illuminate Charis’s corner, she shied away. Beyond the ring of yellow light that surrounded him, menacing shadows thickened and multiplied up to the high pitched ceiling.
“Please don’t be frightened.” The stranger made a curiously truncated gesture with one black-gloved hand. “I mean you no harm.”
The rich baritone was sheathed in warm concern. He made no overt movement toward her. Charis’s crippling fear didn’t subside. Men, she’d learned from cruel experience, lied. Even men with velvet voices, smooth and cultured.
A sharp twinge in her chest reminded her she hadn’t drawn breath since he’d found her. The air she sucked into her starved lungs reeked of horse manure, hay dust and the sour stink of her own fear.
She turned her head and really looked at the man. Her throat jammed with shock.
He was utterly beautiful.
Beautiful. A word she’d never before associated with a male. In this case, no other description sprang to her churning mind.
Beauty as stark and perfect as this only stoked her alarm. He embodied the elegant world she must relinquish to survive.
Despite her terror, her attention clung to the slashing planes of forehead and cheekbones and jaw, the straight arrogant prow of his nose. He was tanned, unusual in February.
With his intense, compelling features and ruffled hair, black as a gypsy’s, he looked like a prince from a fairytale.
Charis no longer believed in fairytales.
Her eyes darted around the narrow stall. But he blocked the only exit. Again she cursed her idiocy. With her good hand, she fumbled beneath her for a rock, a rusty nail, anything she could use to defend herself. Her trembling fingers met nothing but prickly straw.
Unblinking she watched him set the lantern on the ground. His movements were slow and easy, openly reassuring. But if he wanted to snatch her, he now had both hands free. Her sinews tautened as she prepared to scratch and punch her way out.
In the charged silence, the rattle of her breathing deafened her. It even masked the wind’s constant wail. The powerful horse shifted again and gave a worried whicker, tossing its head against the rope that tied it facing toward the corridor.
What if the nervous beast started to kick or buck in this confined space? The horse’s hooves looked huge, sharp, deadly. Dread settled like a stone in her empty belly. With every moment, her refuge’s unsuitability became more apparent.
Why, oh, why hadn’t she kept going, no matter how tired and hurt? Even sheltering in a hedgerow, she’d be safer than here.
The man stepped into the stall, his black greatcoat swirling around his booted ankles. Shrinking back, Charis prepared to wrench free of grabbing hands. Fresh sweat chilled her already icy skin. He was so much bigger and stronger than she.
But he merely snagged the animal’s halter with a firm grip that brooked no rebellion. “Hush, Khan.” He stroked the gelding’s nose as his voice softened into alluring music. The man’s tall body conveyed an assured confidence that was almost tangible. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
The complex mixture of authority and care in his tone should have calmed Charis. Instead it slipped down her spine like glacial ice. She knew all about men who believed they ruled the universe. She knew how they reacted when their wishes were thwarted. Her furtive search for a weapon grew more frantic.
Khan, foolish, trusting creature, quieted under his master’s murmured promises. For the man must own the beast if he knew its name. Nobody could mistake the stranger for a groom. His manner was too effortlessly aristocratic, his clothing too fine.
She found no weapon.
She’d have to make a dash for freedom and hope her stiff, tired legs carried her. Surreptitiously, she pushed upward. Even this small movement sparked agony. Every muscle ached and her arm felt like it was on fire. She locked her teeth to muffle her whimpers.
“There’s no need to run away.” He didn’t glance up from the now docile horse.
“Yes, there is,” she surprised herself by saying, although she’d resolved not to address him. Her swollen face thickened her voice into unfamiliarity. But her upper-class diction marked her as an object of interest. Memorable. Noticeable.
Clumsily she struggled to her feet. She felt less vulnerable standing. In her awkward rise, she bumped the wall and bit back a sharp cry. Battling dizzying pain, she cradled her throbbing arm against her.
Her ungainly lurch spooked Khan who sidled and snorted. Her father had been a connoisseur of horseflesh. Charis had immediately recognized Khan for the high-bred aristocrat he was.
Much like the man holding the beast’s head.
“I know you’re afraid.” At first, she thought he spoke to Khan. His attention remained on the horse. “I know you need help.”
Help to hand her over to the law, she thought bitterly. “Why should you care? You’re a stranger.”
“That’s true. Although when you chose my horse’s stall, you also chose me.”
“That was just chance.”
At last, he looked directly at her. Surely it was only a trick of the lamplight that his eyes shone so dark and brilliant above those dramatic cheekbones. “All things in life are chance.”
FEATURED AUTHOR: Anna Campbell
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