When the Ministry of Marriage arranges a match, all that matters is power, wealth and prestige. In the business of marriage, there is no room for love. But even the most prudent plans can go awry...
Jane, Lady Roxdale, has endured one marriage of convenience decreed by the Ministry of Marriage. While she deeply regrets her late husband's death, she is relieved to be free at last. But when a dissolute rake threatens everything Jane holds dear, she must contemplate marrying a second time...
Disgraced libertine Constantine Black inherits his cousin Roxdale's land and title―while Roxdale's prim widow is left all the wealth. Constantine is not a marrying man, but wedding Jane is the only way to save the estate from ruin. Jane resists the smoldering heat between them, desperate not to fall in love with an unrepentant rake. But for the first time ever, Constantine wants more than seduction. He wants all of her―body, heart, and soul...
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Christina Brooke is a former lawyer who staged a brilliant escape from the corporate world and landed squarely in Regency England. She lives in Australia with her husband, two sons and an ancient Great Dane cross called Monty. Christina loves travel, window-shopping in antique stores, pink champagne and fine Swiss chocolate. She especially loves hearing from readers.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE COTSWOLDS, ENGLAND, SPRING, 1814
The newly widowed Jane, Lady Roxdale, stood at the window of her private sitting room, staring out at the scene below.
Carriage upon carriage, some draped in black crêpe, some emblazoned with noble coats of arms, choked the rush-strewn drive that wound up to the house. Like a train of shiny black beetles, they shuffled between ornate wrought-iron gates, marched through an avenue of oaks, then paused beneath the portico to disgorge mourners.
Their pace was slow, respectful, inexorable. And Jane could not wait for them all to depart as slowly and respectfully as they’d come.
She pressed trembling fingertips to the windowpane. How soon? How soon must she leave her home?
Not hers anymore. His.
Constantine Black. Her husband’s cousin and heir. The scoundrel who had not even bestirred himself to appear at his kinsman’s funeral.
If he couldn’t summon sufficient proper feeling to appear today, was she not right to fear for the estate? But then, the new Lord Roxdale was reputed to be glittering and wild, a philanderer, a drunkard, a gamester, with no thought in his head save the next faro bank, the next wench, the next bottle of wine.
He would run through his new fortune, just as he’d squandered the funds he’d inherited from his father. That would take time, of course, even for an inveterate gamester such as Constantine Black.
The Lazenby estate was vast, bolstered by the spectacular dowry Jane had brought to her marriage. Her family’s money would fund this wastrel’s dissipation, while she was cast out of her home. The utter, galling unfairness of it! If only …
If only she’d borne an heir, this disaster could have been averted.
Her throat ached with a sudden rush of sadness. If only Luke were the son of her body as well as the son of her heart.
Outside, sullen drizzle turned to rain, spattering those barouches and landaus, tapping at her fingertips through the windowpane. Footmen with umbrellas emerged to rescue the mourners inside the stalled vehicles and shepherd them into the house.
Jane let the curtain fall and closed her eyes. Constantine Black would plunder the legacy that had dropped like a ripe whore into his lap. She’d no power to stop him. None.
A jolt of awareness made her eyes snap open. Something must have alerted her. Not a sound, for the rain and the thick panes of glass muffled noise from the outside. More an atmosphere. She fingered the gauzy curtain aside and peered out again to see a flurry, a veritable commotion below.
A man. Yes, a man on a white horse, thundering down the lawn alongside the drive, streaking past all those black beetles like a shooting star through the night.
She couldn’t see his face, merely gained the impression of broad shoulders, muscular thighs hugging the horse’s flanks, and a daredevil billow and furl to his cloak as it streamed out behind.
He reined in where the bottleneck of carriages made passage to the shelter of the portico impossible. The big, milk-white stallion stood quiescent, magnificent, as the gentleman dismounted in a graceful slide.
The newcomer swept off his hat and bowed to the mourners, who were undoubtedly agog but too well-bred to show it. Black curls tousled and damped in the wet breeze.
He stilled. His big shoulders lifted slightly, as if invisible fingers pinched his nape.
Then he turned. And looked up. At her.
Their gazes met, and the distance between them seemed to vanish in a dizzying flash. Somnolent eyes openly stared at her, heavy-lidded, insolent, a touch quizzical.
Jane’s lips parted. Her heart pounded against her ribs. She had to remind herself to breathe.
A sudden smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, then grew in a dazzle of white teeth. It seared through the black pall over her soul like a bolt of summer lightning. She felt it down to the soles of her feet, that blinding warmth, that tingling joy. Bit back an answering gleam that seemed drawn from deep within.
The stranger’s smile faded. His eyes narrowed to an intent, purposeful regard. Jane’s lungs burned as if she breathed smoke, not air. But she kept looking, looking, powerless to wrench her gaze from his.
Heavens, but she’d never seen such a man before. By rights, vice ought to be ugly in its incarnation, but he … It must be true that the devil looked after his own.
Constantine Black. The new Lord Roxdale. Who else could it be? A hard flutter struck up in her chest, like the wings of a finch trapped behind glass. She took a hurried step back from the window, let the curtain swing shut.
Moments throbbed by in silence before Jane collected herself, straightened her spine. She would not cower and blush before that tricked-out scoundrel, with his loose-limbed charm and his careless strength and his swagger. She disapproved of him utterly. He would not beguile her.
“Aunt Jane, Aunt Jane, Aunt Jane!”
The series of jubilant yells made her spin around with a betraying flush. A six-year-old boy flew helter-skelter toward her before skidding to a halt.
“Did you see him?” Luke’s brown eyes shone as he glanced toward the window, then gazed eagerly up into her face. “The most magnificent beast!”
Jane’s thoughts instantly reverted to the dark-haired gentleman.
Her color deepened. “Why, I … Oh!” She let out a shaky laugh. Of course! Luke meant the gentleman’s horse, not the man himself. “Yes, darling. I did, indeed. A most handsome creature.”
Luke dragged a chair to the window and clambered onto it. Pushing the curtain aside, he peered out of the window.
Jane stayed where she was.
“I’ve never seen a stallion that color before.” Luke craned his neck, the better to view this prime piece of horseflesh. “What do you think he is, an Arab or Welsh? Maybe he’s too big to be an Arab. He must be seventeen hands, at least!”
“Why don’t you run down and find out?” she suggested. “I’m sure the gentleman’s groom won’t mind if you go and look. But only looking, mind,” she warned. “That horse is far too large for you to ride.”
Luke turned to regard her with a speculative gleam in his big brown eyes.
Jane held out her hand. “Promise?”
His mouth twisted with reluctance. “Oh, very well.”
Solemnly, he gripped her hand in his smaller one and pumped her arm in a firm shake. “Word of a gentleman.”
Using her hand for balance, Luke jumped down from the chair. She thought he’d take himself off then, but he lingered, his shoulders drooping a little.
“When do we have to leave here, Aunt Jane?”
Surprised at the abrupt change of subject, Jane hesitated. “Oh, not for a little while yet, I expect.” Lazenby Hall was the only home Luke had known since he’d been brought here as an orphaned babe. The last thing Frederick had wanted was to be saddled with his kinsman’s child, but Jane refused to be gainsaid. From the moment Luke held out his chubby arms to her, Jane had been his slave. She’d do anything to keep him safe.
“I don’t see why we can’t stay,” he muttered, lowering his gaze so that his long, black lashes shadowed his cheeks. “It’s not as if there isn’t room.”
“Thirty-seven of them, to be exact,” she agreed lightly. And that was just the bedchambers.
“Thirty-seven rooms and he can’t spare us a measly two.” Luke kicked at the chair leg with the toe of his leather half-boot.
Jane touched her fingertips to his cheek. “I know it seems hard, but this is the new baron’s house now. It doesn’t belong to us anymore.”
“But what will he do here, living all alone? I should think he’d want us to stay, don’t you, to keep him company? Lady Cecily says I’m excellent company, you know.”
Laughing a little, Jane ruffled his hair. “The new baron would be privileged to have us, in fact,” she agreed. “But I’m afraid we must go, for all that.”
Jane repressed a sigh. Lazenby Hall had been her home since she married Frederick at seventeen. Now that she had to leave it, she felt adrift, her spirits more depressed than she would ever admit to Luke. The Lazenby estate and the welfare of its people were no longer her responsibility. She was powerless to help them, much as she longed to do so.
And indeed, she was more fortunate than many women in her situation. Upon her marriage, her guardian, the Duke of Montford, had ensured that her jointure was more than generous. She could live independently if she chose, set up a household of her own.
Besides, she had Luke, and that was the most important thing.
She said to him, “Speaking of excellent company, I have a splendid plan, one I think you will like. You and I shall make our home at Harcourt, with the Duke of Montford and Lady Cecily and Lady Rosamund. Won’t that be fun? We’ll show you all our old haunts, and there’ll be other children there to play with, too.”
His dark brows knitted. “But all my friends are here.”
Jane’s heart ached for him. “Well, perhaps we might come back to visit them.” A rash promise, but she’d do anything to make the change in his circumstances less painful.
She made herself sound cheerful. “In the meantime, there is a very fine horse awaiting your attention. Why don’t you go down to the kitchens for a carrot or an apple to take to him? And if you’re lucky, Cook might spare a jam tart or two for you.”
Luke brightened instantly at the mention of food. “I need my sketchbo...
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