After her first disastrous marriage, wealthy heiress Amethyst Cameron swore she'd never take a husband again. Yet her beloved father's deepest wish is for her to wed an aristocrat to protect her life and reputation.
Lord Montcliffe must marry into money to save his debt-ridden estate, but he doesn't have to like it - or his bewitching future bride. So he's stunned by the feelings stirred up by one scorching kiss! But when Daniel uncovers the truth can he accept the real Amethyst and help to banish the ghost of her past forever?
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Georgette Heyer novels formed Sophia James's reading tastes as a teenager. But her writing life only started when she was given a pile of Mills & Boons to read after she had had her wisdom teeth extracted! Filled with strong painkillers she imagined that she could pen one, too. Many drafts later Sophia thinks she has the perfect job writing for Harlequin Historical as well as taking art tours to Europe with her husband, who is a painter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Amethyst Amelia Cameron's father loved all horses, but he especially loved his matching pair of greys.
'I doubt you will ever see others as fine, Papa, if you do indeed intend to sell them.' Amethyst tried to keep the worry from her voice as the carriage drew to a halt in the narrow lane outside number ten, Grosve-nor Place. Things were changing without reason and she didn't like it.
'Well, there's the problem, my dear,' Robert Cameron replied. 'I had the best and now I want for nothing more. Take your mother, for instance. Never found another like her. Would not even have tried to.'
Amethyst smiled. Her parents' marriage had been a love match until the day her mother had died of some undefined and quick illness, seven hours short of her thirty-second birthday. Amethyst had been all of eight and she remembered the day distinctly, the low whispers and the tears; storm clouds sweeping across the Thames.
'I do not think you should part with the pair, Papa. You can easily afford to keep them. You could afford ten times as many; every stallion and mare here in the Tattersall's sales for the next month, should you want.' Looking across the road at the generous roofs of the auction house, she wished her father might order the carriage homewards, where they could talk the matter over at their leisure.
It was not like him to decide on a course of action so quickly and she hoped he might have second thoughts and withdraw his favoured greys before the Monday sales the following week.
Yet as her father hoisted himself from the carriage his breathlessness was obvious, even such a small movement causing him difficulty. The unease Amethyst had felt over the past weeks heightened, though the sight of a man alighting from a conveyance ahead caught her attention.
After the dreadful débâcle of her marriage Amethyst had seldom noticed the opposite sex, shame and guilt having the effect of greying out passion. But this man was tall and big with it, the muscles beneath his superfine coat pointing to something other than the more normal indolence the ton seemed to excel at. He looked dangerous and untamed.
His dress marked him as an aristocrat, but his wild black hair was longer than most other men wore theirs, falling almost to his collar, the darkness highlighted by white linen. An alarming and savage beauty. She saw others turn as he walked past and wondered what it must be like to be so very visible, so awfully obvious.
'Have Elliott send the carriage back for me around two, my dear, for I am certain that will give me enough time.' Her father's words pulled her from her musing and, dragging her eyes from the stranger, she hoped Robert had not noticed her interest. 'But make sure that you have a restful time of it, too, for you have been looking tired of late.'
Shutting the door, he encouraged the conveyance on before placing his hat on his head. His new coat was not quite fitting across his shoulders where a month ago it had been snug.
Amethyst caught her reflection in the glass as the carriage began to move. She looked older than her twenty-six years and beaten somehow. By life and by concern. Her father's actions had made her tense; after visiting his physician in London a week ago he had taken his horses straight to Tattersall's, claiming that he did not have the time for livestock he once had enjoyed.
A shock of alarm crawled up her arms and into her chest as she saw her father in conversation with the same man she had been watching. Did her father know him? What could they be speaking of? Craning her neck to see more of their engagement, she was about to turn away when the stranger looked up, his glance locking with hers across the distance.
Green. His eyes were pale green and tinged with arrogance. In shock she broke the contact, wondering about the fact that her heart was beating at twice its normal rate.
'Ridiculous,' she muttered and made certain not to look his way again. Tapping her hand hard against the roof, she was also glad when the carriage slowed to its usual speed of just above walking pace.
Lord Daniel Wylde, the sixth Earl of Montcliffe, came to Tattersall's quite regularly just to see what was on offer. Today with the sales about to begin the place was crowded.
'Ye'd be a man who knows his horseflesh, no doubt?' An older man spoke to him as they mounted the steps, no mind for introduction or proper discourse. 'My greys are up and I'd want them to go to someone who would care for their well-being.'
His accent marked him as an East-Ender, the music of the river in his words. A man made rich by the trade of goods and services, perhaps, for his coat was of fine cloth and his boots well fashioned. The well-appointed carriage he had alighted from was beginning to move away, a young woman staring back at them with concern upon her face, but Daniel's interest was snared by the mention of the greys. The superb pair he had seen yesterday belonged to this unlikely fellow? They were the entire reason he was here this morning after all, just to see who might be lucky enough to procure them.
The Repository courtyard at Tattersall's loomed, substantial pillars holding up wide verandas and housing a great number of animals and carriages.
'Your horses aren't on the block today?' Daniel could see no sign of the greys and it was more usual for those lots about to go under the hammer to be on display, especially ones so fine.
'I asked Mr Tattersall for a few days' grace just to think about things,' the other man returned, his cheeks yellowed, but his eyes sharp. 'To give me time, you understand, in case I should change my direction. The prerogative of the elderly,' he added, a wide smile showing off a set of crooked teeth.
Daniel knew he should turn and leave the man, with his roughness of speech and the impossible manners of the trading classes, but something made him stay. The sort of desperation that one perceives in the eyes of a person battling the odds, he was to think later, when all the cards had been stacked up into one long, straight and improbable line. But back then he did not have the facts of the stranger's most singular purpose.
'My name is Mr Robert Cameron. Timber merchant.' No shame or hesitation in the introduction.
'Daniel Wylde.' He could do nothing less than offer his own name, though he did not add the title.
The other man did it for him. 'You are the Earl of Montcliffe? I saw the insignia upon your carriage outside and Mr Tattersall himself pointed your personage out to me here last week as a man who knows his way around a horse.'
'Indeed.' Even with the frosty tone of the reply Cameron seemed unfazed.
'My greys are this way, my lord. Would you do me the honour of looking them over?'
'I am not in the market for a purchase.' Hell and damnation, there was no untruth in that, he thought, his hands fisting in his pockets with the sort of rage he had almost become accustomed to. Noticing others looking his way, Daniel tried to soften his face.
'But you are renowned for your knowledge of a fine buy in horseflesh and it is that I seek to be assured of. I was only hoping for the chance of an expert's opinion.'
They had passed beneath the roof delineating the courtyard now and had wandered down into the stables proper. It was darker here and a lot less busy. When the ground unexpectedly fell away the old man tripped, Daniel's arm steadying him before he lost balance completely.
'Thank you, my lord.' Cameron's voice was quieter and the flesh beneath the finely made coat felt alarmingly thin. Life had honed his instincts and Daniel's were on high alert. This man was not quite as he seemed and he wondered at what was hidden.
'Here they are. Maisey and Mick. After my parents, you understand, though they will not be billed as such here. Names of high distinction fetch more in the way of coinage, I am told, and so Mr Tattersall thinks to call them after ancient Grecian gods.'
The greys were of Arabian descent, their distinctive head shapes and high-tailed carriage unmistakable. The horses were small and refined, and Daniel could have picked their lineage out easily from a thousand others.
'Richard Tattersall is a shrewd operator so perhaps you should listen to what he says if you wish to part with them. I know my brother always paid through the nose here,' Daniel remarked.
Gnarled fingers were held against the jibbah bulge on the horse's forehead, and it was easy to see that there was no lack of love between the animal and its master as the horse nuzzled closer.
'Maisie finds any change difficult.' The catch in his voice suggested he did too.
'Why are you selling them, then? If you bred them, you could turn a tidy profit without too much work in it. A few years and the money could be double what a sale now would garner.'
'Time is a commodity I am a little short on, my lord.' The reply was grave. 'But you sound like my daughter.'
'The woman in the carriage?' Why the hell had he said that? He wished he might take such a question back.
'My beautiful jewel.'
Again Daniel was shocked. In his circle it was not done to talk of progeny in such glowing terms.
'Are you married, my lord?' Another impertinence. Did Mr Robert Cameron always speak without thought?
'No. Too busy saving England.' He knew he should adopt a sterner demeanour, but the man was beguiling in his lack of protocol. The memory of a soldier he had once known came to mind. A man who had served with him and saved his life before losing his own on the high hills of Penasquedo. He shook away ennui. Of late the emotion seemed to have hitched a ride upon his shoulders, crouching over everything he said and did; a result of the problems at Montcliffe Manor probably and the cursed debts that had piled up in the years between his father's indifference and his brother's high-stakes gambling.
The other looked relieved at his answer.
'A parent would do almost anything to keep a child happy, you understand?'
'Indeed, I should imagine such a thing to be so.'
'I would give my horses without a moment's hesitation to a husband who had the wherewithal to make my girl smile.'
'A generous gift.' Where was this conversation leading? Daniel wondered, as a small seed of worry began to grow.
'I was married myself for twelve long and happy years before my wife passed on. Well before her time too, I should say, and for a while...' He stopped and brought out a large white kerchief to dab his face with. 'For a while I thought to follow. The world is a lonely place to be without the love of a good woman and it was the nights that were the worst.' Shrewdness lurked above sorrow in Robert Cameron's eyes.
The stallion had now come over for its share of attention and Daniel had seldom seen another of its ilk; leanly muscled and compact, he was built for endurance, head turned towards him and darkly intelligent eyes watchful. If he had had the money he would have placed it down right then and there because he knew without a doubt that offspring from these two would soon be worth a small fortune on any market in the world.
'Where did you get them?'
'In Spain. Near Bilbao. I had heard of them and went over to look. Fell in love at first glance and brought them back three years ago.'
'Don't sell them cheap, then. If you hold out for your price, their worth will be increased,' Daniel advised.
'You wouldn't be interested in purchasing them yourself?'
This was not said with any intention at rudeness. It was just a passing comment, a friendly gesture to a stranger. Of course Cameron would think the Mont-cliffe coffers full. Everybody still did.
He shook his head. If he could have raised the money, he would have bid for the pair in a trice, but that sort of life was finished and had been for a while now. He noticed a few other patrons drifting down to take a look at the greys. And then more came. However, Robert Cameron did not seem the slightest bit interested in singing the praises of his horseflesh any longer which was surprising, given the hard line he had taken just a moment before.
As the crowds thickened Daniel tipped his hat at the timber merchant and made his way out of the crush.
Three-quarters of an hour later, he was glad to sit down on the comfortable seat of his carriage. His right leg ached today more than it had in months and he knew that the bullet would have to be removed before too much longer. The Montcliffe physician had told him that time and time again, but the worry of being left a cripple was even worse than the pain that racked through him each time he stepped on it.
Throwing his hat on the seat, Daniel leant back into the leather and ran his fingers through his hair. It was too damn long and he would cut it tonight after a bath. His valet had once done the job, but Daniel had let him go, as he had had to do with other staff both at the town house and at Montcliffe.
He cursed Nigel again as he did almost every day now, his brother's lack of care of the family inheritance beyond all comprehension. One should not think ill of the dead, he knew, but it was hard to find generous thought when any new debt now joined the pile of all the others.
A sudden movement caught his attention and he focused on a group in a narrow alleyway off Hyde Park Corner. Four or five men circled around another and it was with a shock that he realised the one in the middle was the timber merchant, Mr Robert Cameron.
Banging on the roof of the conveyance, he threw open the door and alighted quickly as it stopped. Twenty paces had him amidst the ruckus and he saw the old man's nose streamed with blood.
'Let him go.' Raising his cane, he brought it down hard on the hand of the man closest to him as the scoundrel reached inside his coat for something. A howl of pain echoed and a knife dropped harmlessly to the cobbles, spinning on its own axis with the movement.
'Anyone else want a try?' He knew he had the upper hand as the thugs backed off, yelling obscenities at him, but nothing else. They were gone before he counted to ten and there was only silence in the street.
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