Chloe Gresham wasn’t expecting a warm welcome—after all, her new guardian was a total stranger. But when Sir Hugo Lattimer strode into Denholm Manor after a night of carousing and discovered he’d been saddled with an irrepressible and beautiful young ward, the handsome bachelor made it perfectly clear he wanted nothing to do with her. Chloe, however, had ideas of her own. . . .
Driven by dark memories to a tormenting despair, the last thing Hugo needed was an irritating, infuriating, unpredictable schoolgirl, especially one whose stunning beauty and natural sensuality challenged his self-control. Yet he owed it to the lass to turn her into a proper lady and marry her off to a wealthy young lord in London. And by God he would do it . . . if only he could resist the temptation to bring her to his bed . . . and if only he could keep her safe from those who would use an innocent young woman for shameless revenge.
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The shadows of the two duelists, thrown by the massive altar candles, danced long and eerie on the stone walls of the crypt. The only sounds were the soft padding of their stocking feet on the granite tombstone slabs, the singing of steel on steel, and their swift yet measured breathing.
Ten men and one woman watched the deadly ballet. They stood motionless around the walls, barely breathing, only their eyes moving as they followed the dance. The woman’s hands were clenched so tightly against her skirt that her fingers were bloodless. Her waxen pallor had a greenish tinge to it, and her eyes, usually the vivid blue of a field of cornflowers, were so pale as to be almost opaque—as pale as her lips.
The duelists were both tall, powerful men, evenly matched except in age. One of them seemed barely more than a stripling, the other a man in midlife, with graying hair and a solid, muscled body that moved with a surprising speed and lightness to combat the youthful athleticism of his opponent. There was a moment when the older man’s foot slipped in a trail of blood that dripped from a cut in his opponent’s arm. There was an almost imperceptible stirring of the air around the watchers, but he recovered smoothly and only he knew that his adversary had drawn back for the split second necessary for him to regain balance and pace.
The knowledge of this courtesy gave Stephen Gresham no pleasure. He neither wanted nor expected such favors in a combat that could have only one end. He pressed the attack with a new ferocity, employing the skills learned and practiced over thirty years, relying on the relative inexperience of his opponent to offer him an opening. But Hugo Lattimer’s guard never dropped. He seemed content to let Stephen make the running, parrying with deft economy, turning aside the opposing blade at every thrust.
Stephen could feel that he was tiring and he knew that if greater experience couldn’t prevail, then youth would. Hugo was still breathing easily, although sweat gathered on his forehead despite the damp chill of the crypt. Stephen’s heart raced and his sword arm was a bodily extension of pure pain. The light flickered in front of his eyes and he blinked to clear his vision. Hugo danced and whirled in front of him, and now it seemed that he had lost the momentum, that control had passed to the younger man. He was being beaten back to the wall. It may have been a trick of the light and his own fatigue, but Hugo seemed to come closer until his vivid green eyes, filled with loathing and deadly purpose, pierced Stephen’s body as surely as his sword soon would.
And then it came. A lunge in high carte. He couldn’t summon the strength to bring his sword up in order to deflect it and he felt the smooth steel enter his body.
Hugo Lattimer withdrew his blade from the crumpled body of Stephen Gresham. Blood dripped to the floor. He stared, dazed and unseeing, at the faces around the wall. Elizabeth swayed in front of him. He wanted to go to her, to support her, but he couldn’t. It was not his right. He had just killed her husband. He watched, helpless, as she slipped unconscious to the floor. And the men who half an hour before would have drunkenly participated in her dishonor averted suddenly sober eyes from the still figure.
Jasper Gresham moved suddenly, a vicious oath on his lips. He knelt beside his father’s body, ripping the shirt away from his chest, where the blood pumped forth. It had been a neat thrust to the heart. Stephen would have died instantly. For a second, Jasper’s finger traced the strange design pricked into his father’s skin above the heart—a tiny coiled serpent. He looked up at Hugo and their eyes locked. It was a silent message, but nonetheless lucid. Somehow, somewhere, Jasper Gresham would be revenged for his father’s death.
It didn’t matter that it had been a clean death in a duel fought according to the rites and ceremonies of the practice. It didn’t matter that in his fifty-two years, Stephen Gresham had fought ten such battles—all to the death. All that mattered to Jasper Gresham was that twenty-year-old Hugo Lattimer had defeated his father and he would avenge that humiliation.
Hugo turned aside. Elizabeth stirred and moaned. No longer able to stand back, he bent to lift her and she shrank from him, putting out an arm to hold him away. Her cheek still bore the shadowy bruise of her husband’s hand. Her eyes were blank, and it seemed to Hugo as if the frail body had lost some essential core. She had always been fragile, an ethereal creature of the air and the water. Now, at twenty-two, she seemed to have lost all substance. Whatever will she had once possessed to withstand the blows her destiny had dealt her had abandoned her. She was boneless, weightless, as he gently raised her, despite her rejection. His fingertips lightly brushed her eyelids in farewell. Unless she summoned him, he would never see her again.
He left the dank crypt with its stench of corruption and blood and death, climbing the steps into the frozen winter air of the bleak Lancashire moorland. The stark ruins of Shipton Abbey stood out against a January sky as sharp and clear as glass. The air bit deep into his lungs, but he took it in in great gasps. For two years he had played in that dark and vicious world below. He carried its mark—the mark of Eden—on his skin and its curse in his soul.