To seduce an earl, p.29
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       To Seduce an Earl, p.29

           Lori Brighton
 

  The setting sun pierced the dark clouds and outlined her body with a heavenly glow. Her hair practically sparkled with flames of red and gold. A goddess so deserving of more than what he could offer. Whether he accepted it now or later, he knew deep down he had failed her.

  “Grace.”

  “No, we can’t stop, Alex, we can’t,” she called out over the roar of ocean waves.

  They’d eaten the last of their food today. Tomorrow their bellies would be empty. He would not see Grace hungry. He would not see her in pain as he’d had to see his mother and brother those few days before he’d left with Ophelia.

  “Fish!” Grace called out, her face flushed with excitement as she turned toward him. “And…and oysters.” She raced up the beach toward Alex, her skirts hiked to her knees. “We have plenty of food here! Along the shore!”

  As she danced in excitement around him, Alex glanced toward the beach where the waves were great, gray, and tumbling from the approaching storm. Years ago he and Dem had fished. He could still remember jumping and skipping along the boulders, looking for hidden treats. Perhaps she was right. The memory of his grandfather searching for oysters was fresh in his mind. They did have food here, all around them. In summer the berries up on the hill would be ripe. Wasn’t there an apple orchard not far down the lane?

  “Stop worrying, Alex!” She spun around, twirling so her skirts flared wide. Her laughter warmed his very being; how he always wanted her this happy. She was a perfect portrait of a fairy, one at ease and in love with life and nature. “We are free! We have everything we need here!”

  A burst of sunlight pierced the clouds, making the dew on the grass sparkle like diamonds, as if the very heavens were applauding her effort. And for a moment, a brief moment, he thought perhaps she was right. Perhaps Grace was a fey person, full of magic and hope. Mayhap she knew more than he did about life.

  “We have each other Alex.” She paused, smiling up at him. In her smile was love, acceptance. “Alex,” she stepped closer to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I do love you.”

  The emotion in her gaze almost brought him to his knees. She loved him. She trusted him. She believed in him. Just like that, any hope vanished. How he wanted to beg her to forgive him for bringing her here. Yet, at the same time he wanted to beg her to stay. When she uncovered the truth, that he hadn’t a bloody clue how to support her, what would she think of him? And she would uncover the truth, eventually. Then what?

  As she leaned into him, her eyes closing, her head tilted to kiss him, he thought of their children. They would have children. Children who would need clothing, toys, and food other than fish and oysters. What about winter when the food was scarce? Startled, horrified, Alex stepped back, away from her touch, away from her comfort. Christ, even now she could be with child. His child. And what would his son or daughter think if the truth of his past was ever uncovered?

  “Don’t, Alex,” Grace demanded, her lower lip quivering. She knew where his thoughts led. Anger and frustration flashed in her hazel eyes. “Don’t push me away. Don’t look at me with that haunted gaze.” She marched by him, headed toward the house once more. “I will not let you destroy what we have, what we can have.”

  “Grace, I’m merely being realistic.”

  But she didn’t pause, didn’t even slow her pace. “I will not give in. We can uncover a way to make this work, we must.”

  He sighed and started after her, exasperated. “Life is not a fairytale.”

  “Life is whatever you want it to be,” she snapped back, pausing in the doorway. She spun around to face him, her eyes flashing with a furiousness he’d never seen before. An anger that gave him pause. “She controls you still, Alex. Even now. You may not be at her estate, but she is still here.” She shoved her finger into his chest for emphasis.

  His insides grew stiff and chill. “What do you mean?”

  “Lady Lavender.” Grace gripped the sides of the door frame. “Don’t you see? She stole your childhood, but you are no longer a child! You’re an adult, don’t let her steal your future as well.”

  “You’re talking nonsense.” Avoiding her gaze, he brushed by her and entered the foyer. Her words made him nervous, anxious and he knew why… perhaps she was right. But how could he move forward when his past haunted him so? When he constantly feared the future and what lurked behind the shadowed corners of time?

  “Am I talking nonsense?” Frustrated, Grace followed. “When will you stop giving her power over you—”

  “We aren’t all like you, Grace.” Alex paused in the foyer, his back to her, for he wouldn’t dare look her in the eyes for fear she’d read the truth. He was afraid. Afraid of life and what it could do to a person. “We don’t all believe in fairytales and magic and…”

  Something shifted in the darkness of the parlor, a shadow that didn’t belong. Alex held his breath, not daring to look directly. He didn’t need to turn to know who stood, unwelcome in his cottage. The very air was tainted with the scent of lavender. Instinctively he searched for Grace, knowing she stood behind him, having seen the shadow as well. Neither of them made a sound, neither moved. Alex felt that chain tightening around his neck once more. He’d been right all along, he would never escape the woman.

  “Do let her go on, Alex,” Ophelia said, her voice like a snake hissing from the darkness. “I truly do wish to hear what she has to say. Quite intriguing.”

  Grace flattened her hands to his back, her fingers curling into the material of his shirt, her grip tight. He could practically feel her fear. The fact that Grace was afraid, angered him more than anything. This was there cottage. Their home. How dare Ophelia enter.

  Alex trembled deep within, resisting the urge to shout, to hit something. His anger would only amuse Ophelia and Grace was right, he’d given her enough power. He wasn’t surprised when the two hulking forms of Wavers and Jensen appeared beside their master, always there to protect.

  “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

  Lady Lavender tsked. “Not exactly the greeting I had expected.” Slowly, she moved from the empty hearth, smoothing down the skirts of her light lavender gown. “And she is not exactly what I was expecting.” She moved closer, pausing in the splash of afternoon light coming from the windows. “Who knew Alex liked them so pure and virginal? I remember quite well you saying you were tired of virgins.”

  Anger simmered inside his blood so that he thought he might explode. Damn it all, he should have known she would come after him. He’d hoped, prayed that she had too many other things to occupy her time. But Gideon had been right all along, Ophelia wanted them for an entirely different reason. She must, to have traveled all this way. Why was he so important to her?

  “Why are you here?”

  “To collect what I own, of course.”

  Grace’s fingers bit into his shirt, tightening in the material. He could practically feel the anger vibrating from her body. But she wouldn’t react, she was too smart for that. Grace was waiting for his cue. Alex gritted his teeth, forcing himself to remain calm. Inside, he seethed. How he wanted to kill the woman. How he wished he had tightened his fingers around her throat when he’d had the chance. But killing her would have made him no better than she.

  “You do not own me. You do not own anyone.”

  Lady Lavender sighed and sashayed forward, that satiny velvet skirt swooshing over her polished slippers. The woman’s cloying French perfume permeated the building, leaving him nauseated.

  “Alex,” she said in the same tone a mother would use to speak to a wayward child. “Dear, dear Alex. Grace, here, is correct. Perhaps I don’t own you on paper, but I own your soul, don’t I? The truth is you can’t go to sleep at night without thinking about me. You don’t spend your day without wondering when I will appear. I will forever be in your thoughts, your soul.”

  Bitterness tasted sour upon his tongue. Alex saw red as his fingers curled into claws, the monster within released. With a growl, he surged forwar
d. Jensen moved fast, stepping directly in front of Lady Lavender, at the same time Grace called out, “No, Alex! She’s baiting you.”

  Alex stopped short, coming to his senses. Grace’s warm hands flattened to his body, her very life and essence seeping into his skin, his soul. Calming him.

  “Why,” he seethed through gritted teeth. “Are you here?”

  Ophelia moved around Jensen, trailing her fingers down the slope of the man’s broad shoulders, her glittering gaze locked to Alex. She knew exactly what she was doing, torturing Alex with information she didn’t mean to share. “An eye for an eye.”

  He didn’t understand her words, but he knew it was a clue as to why she hated him so. His heart pumped madly, his hands curling as he resisted the urge to beg for more. She was playing with him, yet she was practically admitting there was more to their chance meeting those years back.

  “An eye for an eye.”

  Ophelia tilted her head to the side in a thoughtful manner, studying Grace. “I’ve been thinking of expanding my empire to include women. I know your family is in desperate need of money. If you’d like the work…”

  Alex’s entire body stiffened as he resisted the urge to surge forward once more.

  “Go back to hell where you belong,” Grace whispered.

  “A fiery temper.” Lady Ophelia laughed. “There are plenty of men who love a woman with a temper. Makes it more…” She lifted her shoulders high as if delighted. “Exciting. I certainly can’t sell you as a virgin any longer though, can I? Shame, they do go for so much more.”

  Alex clenched his jaw, squeezing his teeth so tightly together, surely they would crack. Her vile words and accusations would not taint what he had with Grace. How could she, a monster with no soul, possibly understand their feelings toward one another? “I will ask you one last time, what do you want? Why will you not leave me in peace?”

  She was silent for a moment, a silence laced with condemnation. A silence so heavy that he knew her next words would change their lives forever. “Do you truly wish to know, Alex? If she hears the truth,” She slid Grace a glance, “she may never wish to see you again.”

  Even though he didn’t understand her in the least, Ophelia’s words sent a cold chill down his body. Surely he’d done nothing so ill toward her. He was a mere child when she’d recruited him. So why then, did he fear losing Grace above all else?

  “Tell me,” he demanded.

  “Rape, my dear.” The harsh word hung suspended in the air. Lady Lavender stepped closer. Although she still smiled, her gaze had grown hard, void of feelings, void of soul. “At least that’s what most would call it. Of course coming from a man who is titled, it isn’t called rape. It’s the woman’s fault, you know and swept under the carpet.” She paced slowly in front of them. “Fifteen years ago in France it happened quite often. And with his best of friend helping him cover his crime, a friend related to Russian royalty, who would believe the poor woman’s accusations? The victim was left to rot, and with her innocence a vague memory, her value was gone as well.”

  She paused in front of him, so close the scent of her lavender perfume made him nauseous, but her gaze was on Grace. He felt off balance, his emotions at war, unsure which should win.

  “If a man was dishonored so, he would kill the person responsible and not one soul would blame him.” Her gaze went to Alex. She was smirking once more. “But women, we’re much, much more clever, aren’t we? I destroyed the men involved in another way, by destroying their pride and joy.”

  Bile rose to Alex’s throat. The pieces fell together in soft whispers of denial. His stomach churned with the revolting image she spread before them. A memory too horrible for anyone, even her.

  And with his best of friend helping him cover his crime, a friend related to Russian royalty…

  Russian Royalty. Related to royalty. Alex felt dizzy. He knew his father was a bastard, but surely he couldn’t have been that horrible. So why did his heart feel as if it had been crushed? Why did he feel as if he could not possibly have a soul because he was his father’s offspring?

  It made sense… the reason why Ophelia acted as she did. The reason why she was intent on destroying Alex. It all made sense now. Desperately, Alex found Grace. But she merely stood to the side, refusing to meet his gaze, focused on Lady Lavender. Had he lost her? Alex wanted to reach for her, wanted to swear he was not his father and beg her to believe him.

  Instead, he swallowed hard and focused on Ophelia. “Your problem,” Alex stated, attempting to keep his tone even. “Was in thinking I was my father’s pride and joy.”

  Lady Ophelia laughed a joyous sound. “I’m a patient woman, Alex. Very patient. Perhaps your father wasn’t destroyed by your sudden disappearance, but your family has reestablished themselves, haven’t they? What would happen to them if they found out what you are? If the world found out what you’ve been doing for the past ten years?”

  Alex didn’t even flinch, although he felt her words like a knife to the gut. Grace’s face had gone pale and he knew she understood what his father had done.

  “You will return with me,” Lady Lavender proclaimed, “Or I will see your family humiliated. But worse, I will see that your dear Grace is destroyed as well.”

  Chapter 22

  To the untrained eye, Alex would seem at ease. But Grace knew him well enough by now. She noticed the slight flaring of his pupils, the way that pulse in the side of his neck jumped to life. The way his hands curled ever so slightly.

  “And so,” he said, “what will you do? Force me to leave? Shoot me if I don’t?”

  Lady Lavender released a rich chuckle. “No, of course not.” Her gaze slid to Grace. “I’ll shoot her.”

  Grace hadn’t time to think upon the woman’s dire words before a steel arm wrapped around her waist and she was jerked back into a chest that smelled of pipe tobacco. Wavers moved faster than she’d thought possible.

  The cool point of a pistol pressed into her temple.

  She didn’t move, didn’t even flinch. Flinching would show her fear and she would be damned if she would allow Lady Lavender to witness her vulnerability.

  But Alex, sweet, noble and self-sacrificing Alex, was falling for the woman’s threats. She could see it in the emotion in his eyes. “Alex,” Grace whispered. “Don’t believe her.”

  “No one will miss her, Alex.” Lady Lavender stood before them, a petite specimen of a woman. In reality she could so easily be destroyed. But here, in this world where nothing was normal, she reigned supreme.

  “You think I didn’t know you were sneaking visits with her?” She turned and smiled at Alex. “When you left to see her, I knew. When she came to see you, I was completely aware. I allowed your visits. I allowed you to fall in love, knowing in the end that your love would destroy you. No one will miss her but you. It would be so easy to hide her death. Or perhaps… the world would blame you. After all, you’ve been seen together, haven’t you?”

  “You wouldn’t kill an innocent,” Grace tried, hoping that deep down the woman must have some sense of right and wrong. “I’ve had nothing to do with your world. Alex had nothing to do with what happened to you. You’ve used him, destroyed his childhood, let him go.”

  When the woman turned her cold eyes toward her, Grace understood the truth. Lady Lavender no longer had a soul. “You’d be surprised by what I can do, my dear.”

  “It doesn’t have to be this way,” Grace said, refusing to give in. “You can forget the pain. You can have a life as well.”

  Ophelia sighed. “I do have a life, now that I’ve taken control. I know the secrets of so many powerful men and women. I own half this country.”

  No words or begging would influence Ophelia. The woman was too far gone into madness. Vendetta had kept her going all these years, and she would see all destroyed, even if it meant destroying herself in the process. Grace almost felt sorry for the woman.

  “Gracie.” The tone of Alex’s voice tore through her body. A yearni
ng. A sadness. An acceptance. Grace could barely stand to meet his gaze. “You’ll always be my Grace. You’ll do well enough on your own. You’ll find your way home to your mother and sister. Perhaps one day you’ll find a man who will give you the life you deserve.”

  His words were so final, so heart-wrenching. He’d made up his mind, he’d given up on hope. “No, Alex,” Grace said, surging toward him. Wavers jerked her back, his arms so tightly around her, Grace could barely breathe.

  Alex looked away, refusing to meet her gaze. “I’ll go with you.”

  Misery and horror wrapped around Grace’s heart and squeezed. “No!” She sank into Wavers, her knees too weak to hold her. “No!”

  Alex’s fingers curled into his thighs, his entire body trembling. So lost, so far removed from her already. He’d given up. “Gracie, I must. You’ll find your way back…”

  Her lower lip quivered, but Grace swallowed her sob. She would not beg him to stay, she would not beg Ophelia to leave them in peace. Neither would listen to her. The world around her grew blurry as tears swam in her eyes. Alex, always out to save another lost soul, even if that soul didn’t need saving.

  Ophelia left the cottage and started through the garden.

  Wavers released Grace and moved forward following Lady Lavender like a little lapdog. Grace stumbled outside, tripping down the stoop as they moved through the front garden. He was leaving… leaving her here alone. The future was gone. Raw pain surged through her being. Grace crossed her arms around her waist, wanting to sink to the ground.

  Lady Ophelia glanced over her shoulder, her gaze hard as ice. “Kill her.”

  Confused, it took Grace a moment to realize the woman was speaking of her. The world seemed to pause as the blood roared to her ears in denial. Alex jerked away from Wavers, his gaze frantic and haunted and that’s when Grace realized she was to be murdered, shot in the very garden they’d hoped to make a home.

 

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