To seduce an earl, p.31
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       To Seduce an Earl, p.31

           Lori Brighton
 

  “Are you saying you know me better than I know myself?”

  “Perhaps.” He grinned.

  She parted her lips to respond with something biting and wry, no doubt, but fortunately for him, Patience interrupted.

  “Gracie! Alex!”

  Reluctantly, Grace turned away. “What is she screeching about?”

  They moved to the open door. Patience knelt by the large elm tree, a carpet of tiny blue flowers at her feet, Hope at her side.

  “What is it?” Grace asked.

  She glanced over her shoulder, her brows pinched together in confusion, a small shovel in hand. “I’ve found something.”

  Alex slid Grace a glance and she laughed. It wasn’t the first time Patience had “found something.” It was always, of course, a great treasure, until the object was completely uncovered. An old shoe. A rusty pail. Alex took her hand and they strolled unconcerned toward the two girls.

  “What is it?” Grace asked again.

  “A… box of some sort.” Patience brushed the dirt from her hands and shifted over as Alex knelt beside her.

  “Treasure,” Hope squealed, hopping up and down so her blue dress flared like flower petals on the wind.

  Grace sighed and he knew what she was thinking. Hope’s first word hadn’t been Mama, nor even Papa. No, Patience had taught Hope how to say treasure and the word had stuck. Alex pulled the box from the ground and brushed off the loose dirt. It wasn’t particularly decorative, merely a wooden box slightly longer than his forearm.

  “Shall I open it?” Patience asked, brushing off the lid.

  Alex stood and wrapped his arm around Grace’s waist. “Sure, why not.” He leaned toward Grace and nuzzled her hair. “Are you feeling well?” Julian wasn’t quite a year old and already Grace was carrying another. Perhaps it was too soon.

  She grinned up at him, completely unconcerned. “Of course.”

  “Oh my,” Hope whispered.

  At the odd tone of her voice, Grace and Alex turned. “What is it?”

  “Grace…” Patience looked up, her eyes wide. “Remember how you wanted to make improvements to the cottage?”

  “Yes.” Grace moved around Hope, settling on the grass next to Patience.

  “I think you can now.”

  There, in the box, lay golden coins…pearls… jewels. Their brilliance was not dulled with age, but caught the light and sparkled to life.

  Grace gasped, resting her hand on her chest. “It can’t be.” She looked up at Alex, who stood frozen, too shocked to move. “Alex, it was here all along! The treasure is real!”

  For days they’d searched for that bloody treasure. And now… now he was sadly lacking in enthusiasm. Certainly money was a welcome gift, yet he wasn’t as excited as he should have been. Those years ago, the treasure had consumed his thoughts, had been of upmost importance. Now… now he had everything he needed.

  “Pretty,” Hope cooed and knelt, grabbing a fist full of jewelry.

  “So I’m not imagining it,” Patience whispered.

  “No,” Alex replied. “It’s real. The treasure is real.”

  “We can search for more!” Patience jumped to her feet. “Just think, it could be anywhere.” She raced around the tree, under and over branches until her skirts got caught.

  Grace stood. “No.”

  Patience froze. “But…”

  Grace shook her head. “No. You may search, Patience, if you wish. The treasure is wonderful and we can certainly use the money,” She looked up at Alex, her gaze soft and loving. “But I won’t waste my time searching when I already have my treasure.”

  Alex’s heart constricted.

  Patience sighed and started through the trees. “Very well.” She didn’t understand, but how could she? She was young. She’d never been this content. She’d never been in love.

  “Do you mean it?” Alex asked, drawing her close, neither barely noticing as Hope played with the pretty jewels, tossing them about like they were rose petals at a wedding.

  “I do mean it. We have everything we need, Alex. Everything.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and stood on her tiptoes, kissing him. It was a soft and gentle kiss. All too soon she was stepping back.

  “You could wear satins… velvets—”

  “I’d rather wear nothing and spend time with you.”

  Alex grinned. “Nothing?”

  “Indeed.”

  “Patience,” Alex called. “Do you mind taking Hope along on your treasure hunt?”

  Patience sighed long and loud through the trees. “Oh fine, but really, you two should wait until you’re inside for that.”

  “Very well.” Alex scooped Grace up into his arms and started toward the cottage door.

  ********

  The End

  Interested in more historical romance? Read an excerpt of A Night of Secrets!

  A Night of Secrets

  By Lori Brighton

  Not a sound interrupted the silence. No creak. No groan. No footsteps or whispered words. The house, along with its occupants, slept.

  Meg lay on her side, cold but afraid to do more than stare at the dying fire. The embers in the hearth peered at her like demon eyes, hissing and sputtering to stay alive but there was no reason to stoke the flames. She wouldn’t be here to enjoy their warmth.

  Exhaustion weighed down on her body and mind, murmuring sweet words of relief. How desperately she wanted to sink into the world of unconsciousness, to forget the day, to forget her worries. Instead, she pushed herself upright, letting her legs dangle off the edge of the bed.

  She waited, waited for her pulse to slow, for her mind to clear. Her heart beat, ticking a rhythm that matched the porcelain clock under the glass dome on the mantel. She could taste freedom, feel it in her bones. It’d be easy enough to escape, although once outside, her destination remained an elusive mystery. She’d worry about that later.

  Steeling her resolve, she stood. Her body trembled, the glowing coal blurred before her eyes. Her body felt heavy, sobbing for reprieve. She let her lashes drift down for the briefest of moments and leaned against the bed post. From somewhere downstairs a clock bonged, the low rumble announcing the time to be a little past three.

  In a mere two hours, the farmers would be in their fields. She had to leave now, or she’d never make it past the community’s watchful gaze. With renewed determination, she stumbled forward and the room spun, her body protesting and making her waver on her feet.

  “Come on, Meg, you can do this,” she whispered.

  Like crickets on a warm summer evening, her mind buzzed. She narrowed her eyes, forcing her senses to focus. She’d travel the few hours until daylight and then hide somewhere. The thought of resting her weary head propelled her forward.

  Her trembling fingers fumbled with the handle until the door popped open. If she was quick, she might have time to stop home, gather supplies and run. She peeked into the hall. Moonlight slanted through the window at the end of the corridor, splashing the area in an eerie blue. No footmen stood guard outside her room. Had Grayson been bluffing?

  She pulled her borrowed wrap close, material much too ridiculously thin to be of any use, and padded down the steps, her slippers making little noise. Perfect for the house, but the silly stockings would be soaked outside. Yes, she’d run home and get a gown, pack whatever she could and disappear. Perhaps she’d go to Scotland, perhaps Ireland. She knew the woods for miles around. If need be, she’d find cover and hide until they gave up their search for her.

  And Hanna, she sucked in a sob. Hanna would be better off with Papa. At least for a few years, until things died down.

  Halfway down the steps, her vision blurred. She gripped the railing as she weaved forward. Giving into temptation, she sank down and rested her forehead on her knees. How badly she wanted to crawl up the steps and collapse onto her plush, warm bed. But she knew she would not rest, for dreams of Grayson would fill her head. The gaols and his glowing eyes. The way he’d looked at he
r while she’d bathed, the heat in his gaze, the intensity even now made her shiver.

  The tinkle of piano keys wafted through the air. Meg jerked her head upright. Had she imagined the sound? Slowly she stood and took another step down.

  “Ping, ping, ping.” The notes rang soft, but clear and she could only imagine the mournful tune came from some lost spirit.

  She gripped the railing, her heart hammering. Dear God, had Hanna been right? Were there ghosts in this estate? As if she didn’t have enough problems already.

  “Ping.”

  She narrowed her eyes and moved down one step at a time, slowly, hesitantly. There had to be a perfectly acceptable explanation. Her feet touched the marble floor and she paused, tilting her head this way and that to catch the sound.

  No more music came and she waited to hear the footfalls of a servant, a butler, anyone to explain the sound of the piano. The house settled once more into silent rest.

  Meg darted a glance at the front door looming at the end of the foyer, her entryway into freedom. She took her nightgown in hand and twisted the material in her fingers, indecision holding her captive. She could go now, or…

  “Ping, ping.”

  She spun around and stared down the long, dark hall. As if pulled by an unknown force, she followed the notes from room to room until she reached the end of the corridor.

  At the last door, she stilled. Holding her breath, she peeked inside. The room glowed in the same blue as the hall upstairs, indicating the curtains were thrown wide. A fairyland, a dream.

  Her eyes adjusted and slowly shapes morphed into pieces of furniture. With her heart slamming wildly in her chest, she peeked around the open door. Immediately, she recognized his broad shoulders and trim waist.

  Grayson.

  With his back to her, he sat on the piano bench, hunched over the keys like a man disillusioned with life. He wore only trousers and his shirt sleeves, white material that glowed in the moonlight and gave him the heavenly appearance of an angel lost, grieving. Not a ghost, but a man obviously haunted all the same.

  Even from her distance she felt his melancholy like a wave threatening to take her under. Her body suddenly weak, Meg sank against the wall. What demons hid within his soul? Tormented his nights? God help her, but she wanted to reach out to him, to comfort the very man who’d made her life hell for the past two days.

  He sighed, a sigh that clenched around her heart and wouldn’t let go. In the back of her mind, she knew she needed to leave, to escape while she could, but her legs and her heart wouldn’t cooperate. Who was this man?

  “Miss James,” the shock of his voice stabbed through her hazy mind.

  “There are guards posted around the house. There is no point in trying to escape.” He didn’t turn when he made that statement and for a moment she thought she’d dreamt the words. Perhaps, even now she dreamt of him. But no, his voice still echoed through the room.

  “Come here, Meg.” His tone was soft, yet left no room for argument.

  She wanted to resist, to flee, but an unknown force- fear, curiosity, need- drew her forward. Like one floating, she moved across the room, barely feeling the floor beneath her feet.

  Only a breath away, she stopped, her hands clasped in her skirt. So close she could feel the chill of his body. He turned on the bench and his eyes locked with hers. She trembled slightly, as if his gaze pierced her very soul. Slowly, his attention traveled the length of her gown to her slippered feet peeking from the hem of her white nightgown.

  He lifted a brow. “You had thought to escape in your bed clothing?”

  “It was all I had,” she whispered, her voice husky.

  His hair was out of place, tousled about his head as if he had repeatedly raked his fingers through the strands. Instead of making him look more human, his mussed appearance only made him seem all the more dangerous. Her hands fisted as she resisted the urge to step forward, to smooth his hair back into place. To trace his jaw line and feel the scruff of the whiskers on his cheeks.

  Before she could move, he reached out, taking hold of a loose lock that fell down to her waist. Slowly, he entwined the strand around his finger, the movement pulling her painfully closer. She bit her lower lip, forced to shuffle forward until she stood between his legs. The inside of his hard thighs pressed indecently to her legs, holding her captive. She didn’t understand why his touch affected her so much more than Mathew’s ever had. At the moment, as heat bubbled in her veins, producing an ache that spread deep into her core, she didn’t care to know why.

  “I trusted you to keep your word, Miss James. You have gravely disappointed me.” He tilted his head back and looked into her eyes and she was acutely aware of the fact that they were alone. Utterly alone.

  “Sit,” he ordered.

  He untwined his hold on her hair and patted the space next to him. Even if she wanted to disobey him, her legs could no longer seem to hold her weight. There was something about Grayson this night, a whisper that warned her to obey the man. She sank onto the bench facing the piano. He turned and their shoulders and thighs touched, the contact singeing a path all the way down her side.

  “Do you play?” he asked.

  “A little,” she whispered.

  “Then play something.”

  She swallowed hard and rested her trembling fingers atop the keys. Nerves made her hands slip, the keys crashing. “Sorry, I’m a bit out of practice.”

  He said nothing, merely stood and moved to the window. She was not relieved when he moved. In fact, the opposite. He leaned against the wall, and stared out onto the dark gardens and she wondered what he searched for out there.

  “Play,” he demanded.

  She took her lower lip between her teeth and concentrated on the keys. She knew exactly what she’d produce. A mellow Scottish ditty about a man gone to war and his love left behind. She knew few songs, but as a child it’d been one of her favorites, a song that reminded her of the childish hopes and dreams of true love.

  She pressed softly on the keys, concentrating on sweeping her fingers as her mother had taught her. The song filled the air and transported her back to childhood. Her mama smiled down at her, pride sparkling in her blue eyes.

  “That a girl, my little Meg. You’ve got it now. As good as any titled lady.”

  Grayson was suddenly beside her. Startled, she missed a key and mentally cursed the man’s presence. When he sat down, she almost forgot the notes. The side of his body pressed to hers once more, and she wanted to do nothing more than sink into his hard form, to steal his strength. She closed her eyes, the material of her nightgown providing no buffer from the onslaught of his presence.

  “You lie, Miss James,” his breath was a cool whisper against her ear.

  Her hands stopped, the notes hovering in the air until they dissipated. “What do you mean?”

  “You lie. You play quite well. Continue.”

  She released the breath she held. Her talent was a secret she was actually willing to share. She had to close her eyes to concentrate, but her mind refused to forget the man next to her.

  “Do you play?” she queried, hoping to change the subject, to break the tension in the room.

  He didn’t look at her. “I used to.”

  She wanted to ask what prevented him now, but knew better. Personal questions would only make things awkward. And things were already too tense between them.

  “You’re not paying attention,” he snapped.

  “Sorry.” Her fingers floundered until she caught the song again. Taking in a deep breath, she closed her eyes and concentrated. She forced her mother to mind and just as quickly Grayson took her place. Gritting her teeth, she tried to remember the beach and their summer jaunts as a family, but Grayson was there, with no shirt. Damn him!

  He suddenly moved, jerking her from her fantasy. Stiff, she waited to see what he’d demand next. When his arm wrapped around her back she almost bolted from her seat. She didn’t dare open her eyes, barely breathed as
his body pressed to her back and sides, cocooned in a hard hug. She felt the whisper of his hands right before he rested his fingers atop of hers, cold hands that numbed her skin. She stilled, her breathing harsh in the quiet room. She didn’t know what he was doing, and was too afraid to ask.

  “Keep going,” he said softly, his breath brushing against the side of her face.

  Her fingers straightened, and then curled, trying to make sense of the alien feel of his cold hands on hers. They were too large, consuming. She wanted to slip out from underneath his arms and rush from the room, leave behind the strange sensations he brought forth.

  “Continue,” he demanded.

  She moved her hands up and down the keys, her progress halted by the weight of his fingers. It certainly wasn’t her best performance but he didn’t tell her to stop. Finally, the song ended and her hands stilled. He kept his fingers over hers and she didn’t dare remove them. Unable to resist, she peeked up to see his lashes resting against his upper cheeks, his lips slightly parted.

  His face was all hard planes, but there was a vulnerability about him that reached out and painfully clenched her heart. She wanted to hold him, to slip her fingers into his hair, to explore his taste and tell him everything would be well.

  A warm wash of realization swept through her, settling around her heart. She blinked rapidly, trying to make sense of her emotions. Dear God, she had feelings for the man. A man she should fear. But what kind of feelings? Certainly not love, lust then?

  Lust. The word settled in her stomach like a sickness. She was a vicar’s daughter. She wasn’t supposed to feel lust. Even as she thought the words, stories she’d heard whispered amongst the town’s women came to mind. Kisses, touches, the heated aches. She hadn’t understood it all, had never felt this way around Mathew. She understood now.

  Frightened, she started to pull away. Grayson’s eyes opened and his fingers clamped around her wrists, holding her captive. There was a fierceness to his gaze that frightened her.

  “Merde, you drive me mad, confuse me so I don’t know my own thoughts,” he whispered.

 

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