Love letters, p.5
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       Love Letters, p.5

           Lori Brighton
 
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  Clara almost laughed. How utterly divine! She’d almost forgotten Brendon was an earl and held the confidence to go with the position. Unable to resist, she stood on tiptoe and peeked over his shoulder.

  Desmond had paused, his throat working, those beady eyes darting from her to Brendon, as if searching for the truth. “You lie.”

  “He’s not lying, you bastard,” Clara snapped.

  Brendon settled his hand on her hip, pushing her back. “Clara, damn it, stay behind me.”

  She smiled apologetically. She couldn’t help herself. For the first time in days, hope tempted her to believe in a happily ever after.

  “You’re mad,” Desmond seethed, yet he took a step back all the same. “No earl would live in this hell.”

  Her fiancé’s henchman started trembling. “Ye…ye said it would be easy! I didn’t sign up fer this.”

  Desmond’s head whipped toward the man. He wasn’t used to servants questioning his demands. “You will stand your ground!”

  But the man was already lowering his pistol and stumbling back toward the door.

  “I’ll give you five pounds to leave now,” Brendon offered, a casual offer that belied the seriousness of the situation.

  The man nodded.

  Brendon kept his gaze firmly planted on Desmond. “Smith?”

  The butler frowned, but reached into his vest pocket and gave the coins to the man. The man shoved the butler forward and raced out the door, leaving Desmond alone, abandoned. Just like that, the tide had turned. Glee swept through Clara. For the first time in months she felt brave, she felt sure.

  Desmond stepped back, his gaze jumping from Smith to Brendon. “She’s been promised to me!”

  “I never agreed,” Clara said.

  Smith latched onto Desmond, holding tight as the man twisted and fought for release. “She’s a whore!”

  Brendon moved faster than Clara thought possible. In two quick strides he was on her supposed fiancé. He slammed the butt of the pistol against Desmond’s head with a sickening thud. The monster, who’d been so frightening only two days ago, crumpled to the floor, out cold.

  “Smith, escort our guest downstairs, tie him up and get the constable.”

  The butler nodded. With a grunt, he rolled Desmond out the door. There was a thump, thump, thump as her fiancé fell down the steps. Then there was only silence. Clara stood still, alone, afraid to move. Afraid this was all merely a dream. A lovely dream, yet… it wasn’t over. She knew Desmond would never release her.

  “You shouldn’t have done that.”

  He turned toward her, his brows raised in surprise. Tears stung her eyes, Brendon’s form blurring. No one had ever protected her so, no one had ever cared.

  “Are you jesting?” His voice was calm, too calm for what they’d just been through.

  “No!” She swiped angrily at her tears. “You don’t need more problems.”

  She spun around and scooped up her clothing. “I’ll…leave. Continue with my plans. No one need know that you almost killed a man for me.”

  She started by him. Brendon reached out and latched onto her upper arms. “Clara, you’re not going anywhere.”

  She couldn’t look at him, afraid that if she did, her resolve would crumble. “Please, just let me go. You’ve had enough heartache, I don’t want to bring more and he will, Brendon, he’ll bring you problems you don’t deserve. He won’t relent.”

  “You think I’m afraid of that man? I didn’t lie when I said I was an artist for the Queen.” She jerked her gaze toward him. He quirked a brow, his face set in arrogant lines. “One word from me and Desmond will be on a ship set for Australia.”

  His assurance didn’t help. She sniffed and looked at the floor. She supposed he wasn’t worried, but she was. How could she not? It was perfect, too bloody perfect, too good to be true.

  Brendon stepped closer. “I’ve been through so bloody much, that nothing frightens me…nothing but the thought of losing you.”

  Her heart lurched. He didn’t mean the words, did he? She peeked up at him through her lashes. Only sincerity crossed his features. Still, she couldn’t believe his words, not after so many years of wanting him from afar, of spying on him at balls and dinners. “You’re lonely, you merely want companionship.”

  He released his hold and swept past her toward that desk. “When you were fifteen, so sweet and kind, I admired you. The way you always helped others. I prayed you wouldn’t change.” He reached into the drawer and pulled out a stack of letters tied together with twine. “A year ago my sister started sending these. Do you know what they are?”

  She shook her head.

  “Letters from Elizabeth. Letters you’d sent to her.”

  Clara pressed her hands to her temples, fighting her confusion. “I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

  He held that stack of letters to his chest as if they meant everything in the world to him. “God, Clara, you’re an amazing woman. I came to know you through these letters. I came to appreciate you, to care for you.” He started toward her. “These letters were the only thing that kept me going, my only link to humanity.”

  Her heart soared. “Brendon.” No longer could she stand so close and not touch him. She reached out, taking his hand in hers. That musky scent of his tempted her senses. “Do you know what’s in these letters?”

  She shook her head.

  He smiled, a heart-stopping smile. “Things about you.”

  “Me?”

  “My sister had the insane thought that if she could show me how wonderful you were, I’d break free of my melancholy. That I’d move on…toward you.”

  Hope flared sweet and tempting. “I always did like your sister.”

  Brendon pressed the stack of letters to her heart. “I know about when you fell into the pond last year trying to pick that flower.”

  Well that wasn’t the best thing to retell. What was Elizabeth thinking?

  “I know how you made sure the children in your shire had shoes last winter. How you gave food to Mrs. Miller’s family when their father died.”

  He set the letters on the desk and gripped her shoulders, bringing her close. “I know you hate to eat lamb because you think the animals are too sweet to kill. That you love iced lemon.” He slipped his finger under her chin, tilting her head back and locking his gaze on hers. “I know that you still read those gothic novels. I know that three months ago when some woman belittled my sister, you slapped her with your fan.”

  Clara flushed again, looking away. “She was rather vile.”

  Brendon brought her close, his heart thumping madly against her cheek. His scent wrapped around her in a warm cocoon she never wanted to leave. “But most of all, I know that I fell in love with you through those letters.”

  Clara’s heart stopped. For that split second as the words sank in, her heart stopped. Impossible, it was utterly impossible. “You didn’t.”

  “I did.” He leaned back, slipped his finger under her chin and tilted her face upward once again. “You made me laugh. Your letters were the one thing that kept me going.” He gripped her shoulders. “Tell me you care about me.”

  She stared into his eyes, the man she’d loved ten years ago. The man who stood before her now, changed, yet still the same. Life didn’t happen this way, did it? Girlish wishes and dreams didn’t come true.

  “Clara?” he said her name, his gaze flashing with uncertainty. She had a chance, a chance for happiness. She’d be mad to say no. Clara smiled and threw her arms around his neck. “You know I do, Brendon. You know I love you.”

  He rested his forehead to hers, their breaths mingling as one. “Tell me you’ll show me happiness again. Tell me you’ll show me life. Marry me.”

  She didn’t hesitate. “I will.” Grinning, she pressed closer to him. “I do love you and I will…I will marry you.”

  With a growl low in his throat, Brendon lowered his head and pressed his mouth to hers, sealing the deal.

  Epilogue<
br />
  The sound of happy chatter faded as Clara closed the door tightly behind her. A low fire crackled in the hearth, the light a soft orange and red that sent dancing, festive shadows across the walls.

  In the corner of the room, an evergreen glistened with glass ornaments and candles. A beautiful, magical world. Her heart warmed as happiness flowed through her body. A stunning room, in a stunning country estate. But it was that tall, broad shouldered man standing near the tree who caught her attention. He wore a black jacket and trousers, his dress clothing.

  “Darling,” she said softly.

  Brendon turned, a guilty smile upon his handsome face. He lifted the bundle in his arms and nuzzled his face against the baby’s downy head. “We’ve been found.”

  Clara fought her smile. “She’s supposed to be sleeping, you know.”

  “She was crying.”

  The man had the impossible habit of giving their daughter whatever she wanted. The moment she cried, he was there, cradling her. Lily would be ridiculously spoiled, Clara thought, with a sigh. Yet, how could she complain when Brendon spoiled her just as much? She sidled up next to him and peeked down at their daughter. At only a couple months old, she was round and pink and lovely. Unable to resist, Clara leaned down and pressed her lips to the child’s smooth forehead. The baby smelled fresh, new.

  “She’s so lovely,” she said, in a completely unbiased way.

  “She looks like her mother.”

  Even after a year of marriage Clara’s cheeks flushed at the compliment. She’d had so little in her life but Brendon was making up for that. He moved away and settled Lily in her cradle. At the sound of whispers against glass panes, Clara moved closer to the windows. Flakes hit the glass just like that night a year ago. But now, instead of a dingy city, the countryside met her gaze. Rolling hills awash in pure white. Chill wind seeped through the windows. Just as Clara began to shiver, she felt Brendon’s presence. Closing her eyes, she sank back into his muscled arms.

  “Have I told you today that I adore and love you?” he whispered against her ear.

  She smiled. How often he told her. “Yes, I believe so.”

  He slipped his finger under her chin and tilted her head to the side. His face had grown serious. “I don’t deserve you.”

  Her heart clenched. Clara turned in his arms. “You deserve everything you’ve gotten and more.” She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested the side of her face on his beating heart. “You think I don’t know about the food you’ve sent to London every month?”

  He stiffened in surprise. “Who told you?”

  “I’m your wife. I know everything.”

  His hands cupped the sides of her face. “I couldn’t abandon them, not after witnessing their hardship day after day.”

  “I know.” She rested her palm on his chest, his heart beating strong and fierce. “You’re a wonderful man, my love. You just have to learn to accept that.”

  Brendon started to lower his head, when the door opened, light following Elizabeth into the room. “I knew I’d find you two here. Always sneaking off.” She shook her head, her blond curls bouncing. “Just as a reminder, you do have guests and they’re currently making their way to this very room.”

  Clara grinned, Brendon groaned.

  “Come along then.” Elizabeth moved toward the cradle and scooped up Lily, snuggling her close. “We’re going to sing carols.”

  Brendon rolled his eyes.

  “And you will join in!” She swept out of the room, taking Lily with her.

  Clara stood on tiptoe and pressed a quick kiss to her husband’s lips. “I suppose there’s no escape.”

  He grinned a wicked grin. “Oh, there’s always a way to escape.” He took her hand and pulled her across the room toward the bookshelves.

  “Where are we going?”

  “You’ll see.” He took hold of a gargoyle carved into the corner shelf and pulled down. The bookcase opened, revealing a narrow set of stairs.

  “The perfect way for couples to meet unseen.”

  Clara grinned. “Very wicked indeed.”

  He jerked her into the small corridor and pulled the door shut. From the other side she could hear Elizabeth and the guests entering the parlor.

  “Where did they go now?” Elizabeth’s muffled voice grumbled.

  “Oh leave them alone, my dear. I believe they’ve found a better way than singing to entertain each other,” someone replied.

  Clara gasped as the muffled voices broke into laughter. Heat shot to her cheeks. “They’ll know!”

  Brendon pushed her up against the wall, his warm fingers bringing up her red, velvet skirts. “Do you mind?”

  His lips found her neck as his hands brushed against her outer thighs. Clara sighed, sinking into his muscled form. She didn’t mind a bloody thing when he touched her. “No. No, I don’t believe I do.”

  “Good.” He dropped her skirts and scooped her up into his arms.

  Her skirts rustled as he moved up the steps, surely loud enough to be heard. Clara leaned closer and snuggled her face into that spot where his neck met his shoulder, the spot that held his scent. Giddiness swelled within, threatening to burst her heart. Even now she couldn’t believe her luck, couldn’t believe her life had turned out as it had.

  “Where does the staircase lead?” she asked, not really caring, as long as they were alone.

  His teeth flashed white as he smiled wickedly down at her. “To the perfect place, my love. Our bedchamber.”

  ********

  The End

  Meant For Me

  A Historical Romance by Lori Brighton

  ********

  Chapter 1

  Her reputation was going to be destroyed and all because of her hair.

  Red.

  The bane of her existence. Her mother had always cursed Cynthia’s ancient Celtic blood, for Cynthia’s locks were a reminder of her bastard of an Irish father, the man who’d abandoned her mother pregnant and unwed. Aye, they were cursed locks indeed and no moment had proven that more than now.

  “Your mask is crooked,” Lady Hogar said in a hushed whisper. Her ice blue eyes glared at Cynthia through a mask of pure white, the mask an angel would wear. How ironic.

  Cynthia reached up to her own black lace concoction. With her mask in place, hopefully no one would realize her true identity. But they would guess. Yes, they’d guess she was Helen, Lady Hogar’s daughter. And they’d be wrong.

  “Stand up straight.” Mrs. Hogar followed the order by pinching Cynthia’s side.

  She jerked upright, resisting the urge to rub her stinging skin. Her aunt’s long fingers always found the most sensitive of her flesh. How she despised the woman!

  “Two dances. Don’t look directly at him. He’ll never know who you really are.” The woman’s claw grasped Cynthia’s wrist as she jerked her toward a corner where a potted plant half-hid her from view. The ton adored a masked ball for it was the only time when priorities and morals were pushed to their limits. The large room practically vibrated with excitement.

  Yet Cynthia found the entire situation ridiculous, and the night would no doubt end in her utter humiliation. Of course she’d brought this to her aunt’s attention.

  “Why don’t we merely tell him the truth? That Helen is ill and couldn’t attend?”

  She’d been soundly slapped for being cheeky.

  Still, now that she was here she felt she must try, at least one more time. “Surely, Aunt, he’ll know I’m not my cousin.”

  “He’s met with Helen only thrice, each time rather briefly.” Her aunt took her arm and pulled her across the parquet floor to the next potted palm, the heels of her slippers sliding on the polished wood. The ballroom was a wonder of exotic decorations, with silky curtains of brilliant colors that shimmered in the low candlelight. The guests were just as brilliant, dressed in gowns of gaudy colors that would have normally been shunned.

  “Lady Hogar! Lady Hogar!” Mrs. Gold waddled toward them,
her excitement almost palpable. The woman’s round form was swathed in a brilliant pink that should have been considered outlandish. Her features were covered with an equally garish pink mask that barely covered her moon-sized face.

  She leaned closer to Cynthia’s aunt in a conspiratorial way. “I recognized you because of Helen’s beautiful burnished hair.”

  Cynthia realized the woman was talking about her and managed a tight smile. Yes, she and Helen had similar colored hair, although Helen’s seemed far from cursed. And yes, they both had blue eyes. But she was slightly taller, slightly rounder than her cousin. But Lady Gold, a woman who was Helen’s constant admirer, didn’t seem to notice. Perhaps he wouldn’t either.

  “Come; do tell me what you think of the décor…quite scandalous! Don’t you agree?”

  “Indeed!” Auntie said, slipping into the petty gossip easily and giving Cynthia respite, for at least a moment.

  Alone, Cynthia pressed her gloved hand to her bodice, worried her breasts would break free of the tight material. Ridiculous indeed. Hugging herself, she peeked around a large marble column. The ballroom was immense, the place crowded with masked guests. How would she ever find him? Helen had told Lord Kennwick she’d be wearing red and so she was. A gown too tight and too low around the neckline for Cynthia. She felt exposed; almost indecent.

  Releasing a frustrated sigh, she started to turn back toward her aunt when she spotted a tall, dark-haired figure. Cynthia sucked in a breath and froze. It was him! The entire ball room seemed to fade, the music pausing. Although a plain, black mask covered half his face and his evening wear blended with the other black suits, she still knew him. She’d memorized every inch of his muscled form, the way he stood so confident and sure, the way his dark hair curled slightly at his collar. He commanded attention and always admired, he stood with a group of men and women, hanging on his every word.

  She watched his mouth move, focusing on that top lip where a light scar gave him a dangerous air. Cynthia could barely breathe. Her legs grew wooden. She leaned her shoulder against the cool, marble column for support. Merely by looking at him her heart slammed in her chest, and an odd, dull ache of need seeped low in her belly. He was lovely, stunning. His jacket hugged his broad shoulders and when he smiled…Lord.

 
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