Sometimes the matchmaker finds a love of her own…
Lady Charlotte Sinclair has long given up her dreams of happily ever after. Years ago, a tragic accident claimed the life of her beloved fiancé, but somehow she found the strength to go on--as an independent woman with a secret double life that has earned her millions. Lately, however, she has begun to yearn for something more…
While setting out to play matchmaker for her mother, Lady Charlotte meets a rugged, handsome stranger who saves her from a thief in the street, but her heroic rescuer soon turns out to be more mysterious—and dangerously captivating--than any man she has ever known. Swept away by passion into a sizzling summer affair with a man who leads a double life of his own, she vows to live only for pleasure with no promises of tomorrow. But soon she must accept that one final night of ecstasy with an irresistible lover is never going to be enough…
“Julianne MacLean’s writing is smart, thrilling, and sizzles with sensuality.” —Elizabeth Hoyt
Pembroke Palace, England, 1886
In every life, there comes a time when one must let go of certain regrets, stop mourning the paths not taken, and forge ahead into the future with fresh new goals, and somewhat altered expectations.
Standing at the window, looking out over the vast expanse of green lawns and thick forests reaching all the way to the horizon, Lady Charlotte Sinclair raised her teacup to her lips and settled her gaze on the red brick dower house in the distance.
“Do you ever wonder if she’s lonely?” Charlotte asked her sister-in-law, Lady Anne, who rose from her chair and came to join her at the window.
“Are you referring to Adelaide?” Anne replied. “She certainly hasn’t seemed melancholy, not that I can see. It’s been two years now, since the duke passed. I think she is doing remarkably well under the circumstances. Why? Do you feel differently?”
Charlotte set her teacup down upon the saucer with a delicate clink. “I cannot help but wonder if Mother ever thinks about Dr. Thomas. They haven’t seen each other since Father’s funeral.” She turned her eyes to Anne. “You know the story, don’t you? That she ran off with him on the eve of her wedding?”
“No, I didn’t know that particular detail,” Anne said with surprise, looking sharply out the window toward the dower house. “I knew, of course, that she and Dr. Thomas were close at one time, and that they had been sweethearts before she married the duke.”
Anne spoke tactfully, for she was well aware that the two were more than sweethearts, for Adelaide had left her husband for a brief interval during their marriage, and had spent time away from Pembroke with Dr. Thomas. As a result, Charlotte and her twin brother Garrett were born nine months later—one of the many secret scandals hidden within the palace walls.
For years, the secret had been kept safe. No one outside the family knew that Charlotte and Garrett were illegitimate, and that Dr. William Thomas was their true father.
“What in the world happened?” Anne asked. “Because obviously, she didn’t jilt the duke at the altar. She went ahead with it, otherwise she would never have become the Duchess of Pembroke.”
Charlotte turned to sit on the wide painted windowsill, and set her teacup and saucer down beside her. “Mother told me everything about it shortly before Father passed away. She said she had no regrets about marrying him, that it was her destiny to be duchess here, and mother to all of us, just as we are. Though she loved Dr. Thomas quite passionately in her youth, I believe, in the end, she was content with the choice she had made.”
“Naturally I am pleased to hear that,” Anne said as she sat down beside Charlotte on the windowsill. “But you still haven’t told me what happened on the eve of the wedding. Did she keep the duke waiting at the chapel?”
“No, she was there on time. Her father caught Mother and Dr. Thomas as they were attempting to flee the palace through the underground tunnels. There was some violence, I believe, and poor Dr. Thomas was dragged away, unconscious. I don’t know all the particulars, but Mother chose to walk down the aisle the next day to save him from any further harm. She wrote to him and told him that she had changed her mind, that her father was right, and it was her duty to marry the duke, and that William must never contact her again. When he found out she had gone through with it, he left England and didn’t return for a few years. It was when he came back that he and mother spent those…intimate hours together.” Charlotte picked up her tea again. “Father knew nothing about her infidelity until much later, when he realized Garrett and I looked nothing like him or our brothers.”
“That is quite a story,” Anne said.
“Yes, indeed, and I have not been able to push it from my mind since I learned of it. Imagine, poor Dr. Thomas being thumped on the head and dragged out of the tunnels. And poor Mother, who was desperately in love with him…How she must have suffered. It is quite a tale of woe, which is why I believe it’s high time someone made it right. Their day has come, Anne. Do you not agree? Mother was a dutiful wife to the very end, but she is a widow now. And Dr. Thomas—so skilled in the art of medicine—was such a good friend to her when Father was ill. He was her knight in shining armor. Surely they both deserve happiness. They have waited so long.”
Anne considered it. “Do you not think they are old enough, and wise enough, to make their own decisions? If they wanted to be together, there is nothing standing in their way. They can do so without someone—and that would be you, I presume—making it right.”
Charlotte smiled. “Of course it would be me. Why do you think I brought it up?” She rose to her feet and went to pour herself another cup of tea. “Dr. Thomas is always delighted to see me whenever I visit my publisher in London,” she said as she picked up the teapot. “I am sure he would be open to an invitation of some sort. Perhaps he just needs a little prodding.”
“So you intend to try your hand at matchmaking,” Anne said, intrigued.
“I most certainly do,” Charlotte replied. “I am the perfect candidate for such an undertaking. They are my parents, after all, and I know them better than anyone. Besides, I need to have some form of romance in my life, even if it is not my own.”
Anne and Charlotte had been sisters-in-law for twelve years now. They were the best of friends, and for that reason Charlotte did not need to explain that she had long given up dreaming of her own happily-ever-after. Charlotte was no stranger to heartache and disappointment, which was probably why she and Dr. Thomas rubbed along so well. She felt a deep connection to him, for he, too, had lost his beloved tragically at an early age, just as she had.
Before that, Charlotte had actually believed she was leading a charmed life, for she had met the perfect man during her first week of her first Season in London. Lord Graham Spencer was the most handsome man she had ever seen, with jet black hair, piercing blue eyes, and a tall muscular build. If his looks weren’t enough to make a young lady swoon, he was also charming, intelligent, and exceptionally honorable. To top it all off, he was heir to a dukedom, and would soon inherit his ailing father’s title and estate in Devonshire.
They had fallen in love instantly upon introduction, and the courtship was as passionate and romantic as any woman could ever dream. By the end of the Season Graham had proposed with his grandmother’s gigantic diamond ring, and they fell more deeply in love with each passing day as they anticipated their wedding the following spring.
It was a passionate love, and they had both been far too impatient…
Then, three weeks before Charlotte’s highly anticipated walk down the aisle, Graham was thrown from his horse in the middle of Trafalgar Square on a sunny afternoon in London. The coroner told them he died instantly from a head injury, and Charlotte was left to endure the unbearable agony of losing the man she loved with all her heart, and the happy future of which she had dreamed.
A month later, she discovered she was with child. While most women would have feared and dreaded the scandal, Charlotte had wept tears of joy. She announced it to her family with pride—and a careless disregard for how Society would judge her—for in her womb, she carried a piece of her beloved that would stay with her forever.
But fate was cruel to her yet again. At the end of her first trimester, she lost the baby and fell into a deep pit of despair that lasted nearly a year. The grief was immeasurable, and it was a long, hard climb back to a life that included any thoughts of the future, for she couldn’t bear to imagine how to find happiness again.
And so, she passed through her best years in a quiet state of melancholy. Her family tried to coax her into beginning again at the next London Season, or the Season after that, but she had no interest in flirting, and surely no man could possibly compare to Graham, the great love of her life, who had been so cruelly ripped from her world.
Now she was long past a marriageable age, but had found a different sort of happiness from within, and through her writing. A year ago, her first novel The Boxer had been published under the pseudonym Victor Edwards, and it was now a literary sensation, which proved to be exceedingly lucrative for Charlotte. The book was in its seventeenth printing and was selling well in Europe as well as America. She had already been commissioned to write a second novel, which was due on her editor’s desk next summer.
Hence, her life—though it was not what she imagined it would be when she was young and full of romantic dreams—had turned out to be surprisingly satisfactory.
Though lately, Charlotte had begun to desire something more….
She was not a block of ice. She had known passion and desire once before. Though she did not yearn for a life of matrimony—she was financially independent and quite happy in her solitude—her body longed for certain physical pleasures with a man. She wanted to be touched, and aroused. By a lover. By someone sinfully handsome and experienced. Someone compelling.
She may not be as young as she once was, but by God, she had not lost her looks yet. If she were honest about it, without conceit, she was in fact quite comely, with golden hair and a curvaceous figure. In the right situation, she was confident she could do what was required to attract a desirable candidate for the sort of encounter she had in mind.
“So how do you plan to begin?” Anne asked as she rose from her seat on the windowsill to return to the sofa. “Will you invite Dr. Thomas to Pembroke?”
Charlotte shook away the fantasy that had been on her mind so often lately and sat down beside Anne. She picked up a raspberry scone from the biscuit plate. “Eventually, yes, but first I will pay him a call in London. He is always pleased to see me, as I am his only daughter. Since the Season is in full swing, I shall persuade Mother to accompany me. I will suggest that we take in the theater and accept a few invitations to dinners and balls. For years she has been trying to convince me to enjoy myself, so I will inform her that I am ready to do just that.”
“Oh, Charlotte.” Anne laid a hand on her knee. “Please tell me that you are indeed ready to enjoy yourself, and that it is not simply a charade to lure Adelaide to London.”
Charlotte popped the last bite of the scone into her mouth. “I believe I am more than ready,” she replied. “I have been too bookish lately. It’s time to live a little, do you not agree? Heaven forbid I become a recluse in my old age.”
The maid entered to collect the tea tray, and Anne smiled with encouragement. “Will you write to me?” she asked. “And tell me everything?”
“I will write to you each day,” Charlotte replied.
Though she was not certain she would be able to divulge all the details, for some potential activities might turn out to be exceedingly private.
Immediately following the meeting with her publisher, Charlotte instructed her coachman to take her to Dr. Thomas’s medical offices on Park Lane. A short while later she was greeted by the clerk at the front desk and shown into her father’s study, which was located down a narrow red-carpeted corridor at the rear of the clinic.
As always, Charlotte paused at the door to behold the cluttered yet cozy state of the room, with books and papers piled high and spread everywhere, and a faded coat of dark green paint on the walls. Aside from the fact that there was a skeleton standing by the window, the room was quite inviting, but was definitely in need of a woman’s touch. Dr. Thomas needed some help with organization, though Charlotte suspected that might upset his professional balance, for he was a brilliant surgeon who specialized in diseases of the brain and probably knew the exact location of every book and document in the building.
This was his sanctuary, his place of private reflection, where he researched the newest methods of scientific investigation. She was exceedingly proud of him, and pleased that he derived so much pleasure from his work. He often said it was what gave his life meaning, even when he had been forced to endure certain disappointments.
He was referring, of course, to the loss of his great love—Charlotte’s mother Adelaide, now the dowager duchess of Pembroke. It had been years since Charlotte and Dr. Thomas spoke of it, but she knew the hole in his heart would remain there forever, just as the hole in her own heart would always be a part of her. “Like father like daughter,” he once said to her. “We are two peas in a pod.” Not exactly, however, for his lost love was still alive and now attainable. There was hope for them yet.
“William,” Charlotte said with a warm smile, still standing in the doorway as he approached her from behind, having just exited one of the examination rooms.
They were on intimate enough terms to use their given names, at least in private, but he refused to let her call him Papa. It was not to be acknowledged.
“My darling girl,” he said, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. “What brings you to London? Another meeting with your publisher, I suspect? They must be so pleased with the success of your book.”
“Yes, and they are eager for me to finish the next one. My editor had all sorts of questions about it this morning.”
“What sorts of questions?” he asked as he moved into the room and closed the door behind them.
Charlotte took a seat in the leather chair in front of the desk and told him more about her meeting.
After they had caught up on each other’s news, Charlotte sat forward on the edge of her chair and folded her hands primly on top of her reticule. “Did I mention that Mother is here in London as well?” she asked. “We intend to stay for what’s left of the Season and will probably attend the theatre this week. Thursday, perhaps. Tomorrow we will walk in the park. What plans do you have this week, William? Anything of note?”
She spoke in a light, casual tone, so as not to ram too forcefully through the gate in the first five minutes, for she firmly believed that matchmaking required a certain…subtlety. The persons involved in the potential match must not feel they are being pressured, persuaded, or manipulated. They must believe they alone are the source of the attraction, and that they are making their own choices without any outside influences. They must each believe they are holding the reins.
Dr. Thomas sat back in his chair, removed his spectacles and laid them on the desk. “My plans for the week,” he replied, “involve a great deal of research and reading. Which is exciting enough for a man like me.”
She inclined her head at him. “What do you mean? A man like you. You speak as though you are a dull sort of fellow, which is the farthest thing from the truth. Your work is fascinating. I am sure Mother would love to hear about all your latest research. She is very much looking forward to our walk in the park tomorrow. The coachman will take us to Marble Arch entrance around two o’clock, I believe. I do hope it will be a fair day. If it rains, we will hold off until the following day, but two o’clock is such a fine time to walk in the park, don’t you agree? And Marble Arch is a convenient spot to begin. It is not far from here.”
Dr. Thomas inclined his head and studied her with some curiosity.
Charlotte forced herself to stop talking, for she was quite sure her subtlety had just slipped from her grip like a wet frog and was hopping like mad out the open window.
“Are you trying to play the matchmaker, Charlotte?” he asked with an amused look on his face.
She found herself relaxing, and chuckled softly as she dropped her gaze. “There it is. My secret is out. You know me too well, I suppose. I thought I could lure you innocently to the park, where you would take one look at Mother and remember what you were to each other at one time.” Her gaze lifted. “You haven’t seen her since the funeral. That was two years ago.”
“How is she doing?” Dr. Thomas asked with a genuine note of compassion in his tone. “I know it wasn’t easy for her in those final days before the duke slipped away.”
“You were a great comfort to her,” Charlotte told him, leaning forward to clasp and squeeze his hand on the desk. “I don’t know what we would have done without you. Not just in those final days, but in all the years when he was so…” She couldn’t finish, for there were no proper words other than confused, delusional, impossible to care for. Pitiful.
“I was happy to be of service,” Dr. Thomas said. “You know how much I care for you and your mother, and for all of your brothers.”
Garrett especially—her twin—for he, too, was Dr. Thomas’s natural child, and now a surgeon himself. They worked together occasionally at the medical school in London.
“I do know it,” Charlotte replied, “which is why I have come. I would like to see Mother find happiness again. I thought perhaps you and she might like to spend some time together.”
“You have given this a lot of thought,” he said with a smile.
“Yes,” she openly admitted. “So what do you say? Could you join us tomorrow for a walk in the park?”
Dr. Thomas slowly pulled his hand from her grasp and sat back in his chair. He was quiet for a long moment, and his cool withdrawal caused a knot of discomfort to form in her belly.
“I appreciate the invitation,” he said, “but I am afraid I must decline. I am sorry, Charlotte, but your Mother and I had our chance many years ago. She chose to marry the duke.”
“But it wasn’t really her choice,” Charlotte argued. “I know what happened that night before the wedding. She only went through with it to protect you.”
“I didn’t need her protection,” he said. “All I wanted was her.” Then he quickly shook his head, waved his hand as if to erase the conversation, and rose from his chair to stand in front of the window. “I don’t want to discuss it any further. I care deeply for you and Adelaide, but please understand that I cannot pursue the very thing that nearly broke me on so many different occasions. I loved your mother and I dreamed of her for years, but then the time came for me to move on with my life and accept the fact that we were not meant to be together.”
“But she is free at last,” Charlotte argued as she watched him stare out the window with his hands clasped behind his back. “Won’t you consider giving it one more try?”
He faced her. “I am sorry, Charlotte. I am Adelaide’s friend now, but nothing more.”
Charlotte stood up and approached him. “Please do not give up so easily. Things are different now. She is a widow. She can do as she wishes.”
“And what is it, exactly, that she wishes to do?” he asked. “Do you even know?” He regarded her with a knitted brow. “Did she send you here? Or is this your idea, alone?”
Charlotte looked down at the floor. “She doesn’t know I am here. I didn’t want to push her. Or you, for that matter. I had hoped we could simply encounter each other by accident at the park tomorrow.”
“I see.” He sat down on the window ledge and pinched the bridge of his nose. Then he looked up and inhaled deeply. "You must put this out of your mind, my dear. When I told you I had moved on with my life, I meant it. You say your mother is free at last, but the fact is…” He paused. “I am not.”
He may as well have thrown a glass of cold water in her face. Charlotte stepped back. “I don’t understand.”
He couldn’t be married. She was his daughter. He would have told her. Wouldn’t he?
“I have been courting someone,” he said.
Charlotte swallowed uneasily. “Is there an agreement between you?” she asked as a sickening mixture of dread and disbelief flooded into her stomach. “Do you intend to marry her?”
“That is the direction it has been heading for quite some time,” he replied. “She is a lovely woman—also a widow—and completely devoted to me. I have been a disappointed bachelor all my life, but she adores me, Charlotte. I hope you can be happy for me.”
Charlotte looked into her father’s eyes and felt a painful, aching love in her heart. Of course she wanted him to be happy, but she had wanted a happily ever after for herself as well. She had believed she could accomplish that by watching her true parents come together at last, fall in love all over again, and walk down the aisle while the family threw white flower petals at them.
But clearly that was not to be.
Somehow Charlotte found the strength to smile and take hold of his hand. “Of course I am happy for you,” she said. “And I hope to meet this woman one day soon. She must be very special.”
“I believe so,” he said. “But let us take it one day at a time, shall we? I will introduce you when the time is right.” He moved to fetch his spectacles from the desk. “Now I must see a patient, my dear.”
“Of course. I will take my leave.” Charlotte gathered up her reticule from the chair.
A few minutes later, she was standing outside on the breezy street, waving to her coachman who had parked a few doors down, and fighting a severe wave of disappointment. How many years had she dreamed of seeing her parents finally reunited? The tragedy of their love affair always seemed so unfinished. She had genuinely believed a happy ending was possible for them.
Perhaps it was her way of dealing with her own lost love. Perhaps, by bringing her parents back together, it would prove that the cracks and breaks in one’s heart could actually be repaired one day. But it was not to be, and she was terribly unsettled by it. She had been so sure that William and Adelaide would end up together. Was she truly a foolish dreamer? Was she living in a fantasy world?
The coach pulled up in front of her. She was about to step inside and return to Pembroke House when a giant lump formed in her throat. Good Lord. She couldn’t possibly face her mother until she collected herself.
She turned to her driver. “I’m afraid I am not ready to go back yet. I would like to take a walk.” She pointed down the street. “I’ll just go to that corner and turn up that street there. I’ll be back here in a quarter of an hour.”
“Would you like George to accompany you?” the coachman asked.
The footman stepped forward. “It would be my pleasure my lady.”
She gave him an appreciative smile. “Thank you, but I would prefer to be alone with my thoughts. I shan’t be long.”
With that, she started down the street and turned at the corner.
It was a quiet residential neighborhood into which she had ventured, and she strode at a brisk pace along the cement walk, looking around at the townhouses and wondering who lived in them—anything to take her mind off her botched attempt at matchmaking, and the fact that her parents were never going to be together.
Then suddenly, rapid footsteps pounded along the pavement behind her. She stopped to look back, wondering if there was some sort of emergency. Before she had a chance to make sense of the man who was barrelling towards her, he grabbed hold of her reticule.
“What are you doing?” she cried as she gripped the purse tighter, refusing to let go.
The thief tugged harder and nearly swung her around. “Let go of it!” he shouted.
“I will not!” she replied as she leaned back to pull with all her might.
Charlotte had been raised with four brothers who were not above playing rough with her when they were children, and for that reason she was made of stern stuff. Nevertheless, she was completely astonished when the man shoved her back into the wrought iron fence in front of one of the townhouses. Her head snapped back and a sharp pain resonated in her skull. She was barely aware of her knees buckling as the world spun circles in front of her eyes, and she crumpled to the ground in a haze of white.
Drake Torrington was just exiting his townhouse when the sound of a lady’s voice from across the street drew his attention.
“I will not!” she screamed.
He spotted her just as she was knocked into the fence by a scoundrel who made off with her purse.
Drake leaped down the steps, darted across the street, and reached the woman in a matter of seconds. “Are you hurt?” he asked, kneeling down to lay a hand on her shoulder, for she had collapsed.
She seemed dazed by the strike to the head, but then she frowned up at him with a pair of gleaming blue eyes that upset his balance, for he hadn’t seen a woman so beautiful in years. Perhaps never.
“I am fine, thank you sir,” she said as she struggled to rise, “but that man has stolen my reticule. I want it back.”
He helped her to her feet. “You’re certain you are all right?”
“Wait here, then.” He took off after the thief who had paused foolishly at the corner to rummage through the contents of the purse.
Drake sprinted towards him. The man looked up in surprise, then turned to make a run for it.
Reaching into his pocket, Drake grabbed his watch—a conveniently heavy piece of gold weaponry—and pitched it at the back of the man’s head.
The strike was spot on. The bandit tripped and tumbled forward to the ground. Disoriented, he rose up on his hands and knees and shook his head like a wet dog just as Drake came upon him, grabbed him by the lapels, and pulled him to his feet.
Drake shook him. “Hand it over, scoundrel, or I’ll knock your brains out.”
The thief refused to part with it. He threw a flimsy punch, which by some dumb stroke of luck connected with Drake’s jaw. The pain reverberated through his skull and sparked his blood into red-hot flames of savage aggression.
It had been years since Drake had enjoyed a good fight, and he wondered what happened to his old instincts, for there was once a time he would have anticipated and easily skirted such a watered-down blow. His pride bucked violently in response, and a heartbeat or two later, the thief was sprawled out unconscious on the pavement, while Drake stood over him, feet braced apart, flexing his bloodied fist.
The noises of the street had somehow faded away. All he could hear was the slow beat of his own heart, like a continuous rumble of thunder in his ears. Then he realized his heart was actually beating quite fast.
As his body rhythms returned to a more natural pace, reality came crashing back. He dropped to his knees to check the man’s pulse at his neck. He was still alive. Drake removed the reticule from the man’s possession, rose to his feet, and turned around to discover the lady with the disarming blue eyes standing only a few feet away, staring at him in shock.
* * *
Charlotte felt slightly dizzy and considerably alarmed as she locked gazes with the man who had retrieved her reticule. Naturally, she was grateful that he had come to her rescue, but after witnessing such a shocking display of violence, she felt no safer now than she had when the thief first came upon her.
She had watched every heated second of the fisticuffs, and had recognized the force of the gentleman’s blow. Her breath had hitched in her throat when the thief was propelled backwards through the air, as if he had been rammed, head-on, by a raging bull at full gallop.
Glancing down at her rescuer’s big brawny fist and bloody knuckles—then down at the lifeless form on the ground behind him—she carefully asked, “Is he alive?” It would be a miracle if he were.
“Yes.” The gentleman’s voice was husky and low, barely more than a growl, and she was riveted on the spot. “I believe this is yours,” he added as he stepped forward and held out her reticule.
Charlotte stood utterly still as he drew near, for she felt rather breathless. From a distance she had known he was a tall man, but now she could sense—andfeel—the looming power of his massive male brawn. His chest was thick, his shoulders wide, though his torso narrowed down to slender hips and undoubtedly strong legs.
“And this must be yours,” she replied, holding out his pocket watch, which she had picked up on the street a moment ago. “It appears to still be working.”
As they made the exchange, Charlotte felt a shiver move through her. She wasn’t sure what was causing it. She told herself there was nothing to fear. Judging by the way her rescuer was dressed—he wore a fine black frock coat, silk top hat and shiny black shoes—and the fact that he lived, or at least knew someone who lived, in this fashionable neighborhood, he was a gentleman.
Nevertheless, her head was spinning like a top, for there was very little about him outside of the clothes that seemed the least bit refined. He was coarse-looking, like a laborer. Crude, even. Perhaps it was the way he moved with a swagger that was particularly threatening after what she had just witnessed.
Or perhaps it was his rugged facial features. His eyes were a pale shade of bluish-grey, his nose was misshapen, as if it may have been broken a few times in the past, and there were scars on his cheekbones, and evidence of an old gash through one of his eyebrows. His upper lip was scarred as well.
He reminded her of a barbarian from another time. She could easily imagine it—this man, with his huge, scarred, muscled body, standing shirtless in battle, swinging a sword in one hand, wielding a dagger in the other, his eyes burning with bloodlust.
Stop it, Charlotte.
“That was quite a punch,” she said. “How is your hand?”
He flexed it a few times and looked down at his bloodied knuckles. His fingers were thick. So were his wrists. “It’s fine.”
“It doesn’t look like fine to me,” she replied. “I daresay you did some damage, on both sides.” She looked up and down the quiet street. “Should we send for someone? A constable perhaps? Or a doctor?” The side of her head was throbbing. A bump was probably forming already.
“I was thinking the same thing,” he said in that husky, mesmerizing voice. “I live just there.” He pointed at his townhouse, a few doors down. “If you will accompany me, madam, I will send one of my servants to fetch assistance, and I promise this man will be arrested.”
“Is it wise to leave him here?” Charlotte asked. “What if he wakes up and runs off?”
“I will have him brought inside right away.”
Then his eyes narrowed with displeasure and he took a step closer.
For some reason, Charlotte quickly backed away, as if he had swung another punch, this time in her direction.
“You’re hurt,” he said, not seeming surprised that she had recoiled from him.
“No, I’m not,” she insisted.
He pointed to a drop of blood on her collar, and only then did she notice a wet sensation on her scalp. The dizziness she experienced earlier suddenly made sense, and when she slid her gloved fingers into her upswept hair and felt a gash just over her ear, her stomach turned over. “I’m bleeding.”
And for the second time that day, the world turned white before her eyes, her knees buckled beneath her, and she began to sink toward the ground.
Though teetering on the muddled edges of consciousness, Charlotte was keenly aware of the man scooping her up into his arms—as if she weighed no more than a bolt of fabric—and carrying her toward his home.
Clinging tightly to the frame of his shoulders, she fought to stay awake and not faint in his arms. He was rock-solid beneath her hands, and he smelled of exotic spicy cologne.
He mounted his front steps lightly, with no effort at all, as if they were both floating on air, and his incredible strength and appealing virility had a strange effect on her. A bolt of fear whizzed through her veins…though perhaps it wasn’t fear, but something else entirely. Something more heady, more dangerous. Every fiber of her being hummed with energy and excitement. Indeed, she had never experienced anything quite like it.
“That’s it,” he whispered softly in her ear as he shifted her in his arms to rap the lion’s head doorknocker. “Just hold on to me, darling. You’ll be fine. My housekeeper will tend to you. One shouldn’t ignore a head wound, you know. They can be serious.”
She suspected he was making conversation to keep her conscious, but there was little danger of nodding off, for she didn’t want to miss a single moment of this strangely thrilling ordeal.
Soon the door opened and Charlotte was carried into the house. She looked around at the walls, the floors, the staircase and the pictures on the walls as she was conveyed into a cozy front parlor, decorated with deep colors and chintz fabrics.
Clearly this house did not lack a woman’s touch. She wondered if the gentleman had a wife, and if so, was she at home? What would she say when she saw her husband carry a strange woman to the sofa and lay her down upon it?
The butler appeared—was he the one who opened the door?—and followed them into the room. “Was there an accident?” he asked.
“Yes,” her rescuer replied as he ensured Charlotte was settled comfortably on the soft cushions. “This woman was robbed, and she requires our assistance. Please send for Mrs. March and tell her to bring warm water, bandages, and a washcloth. Send Richard to fetch a constable, but not before he and Alfred bring the thief inside.” He leaned closer to the butler and lowered his voice. “Tie him up in the kitchen.”
“Yes, sir,” the butler said, and left to fulfil his duties.
While the gentleman looked out the window to keep an eye on the thief, Charlotte attempted to rise up on her elbows, but felt a sudden wave of nausea.
“Don’t try to get up,” he said. “Wait for the housekeeper. She’ll be here soon.” His gaze returned to the street.
Charlotte watched his cool gray eyes sparkle like silver in the sunlight. “If I am going to thank you properly,” she said, “I should at least know your name.”
He faced her, clasped his hands behind his back, and bowed slightly. “My apologies, madam. I am Drake Torrington.”
“Torrington…” Her eyebrows drew together as she tried to place the name.
“My uncle is Earl Lidstone,” he explained.
Ah. So he was a member of the aristocracy. She wanted to rise to her feet and introduce herself properly, but dared not move from her position.
“Your uncle’s estate is near Brighton, is it not?” she asked.
“That is correct.”
“I know of it. I visited there once, when I was a girl.”
“Did you,” he flatly said.
Curious to know more about him, she politely inquired: “Do you have a family, sir? A wife and children?”
“No, there is only my mother, who is mistress here. I am not married, and I have only just returned from America.”
“How long were you away?”
“Oh my. Twelve years… Welcome home, then,” Charlotte replied. “Are you here merely to visit, or do you plan to stay?”
“I’ll be leaving at the end of the summer,” he told her, seeming distracted. “There. A few of my servants are bringing your thief inside now.”
“Is he conscious?” Charlotte asked, trying again to sit up. This time she felt somewhat recovered.
“See for yourself.” Mr. Torrington held the curtain aside for her. She was able to look out the window behind the sofa.
The man was on his feet and walking, though he leaned heavily on the men on either side, who escort him inside. “I will have Mrs. March examine him as well when she is through with you,” Mr. Torrington said.
Charlotte regarded her rescuer curiously in the window light as it reflected off his shiny black hair. Then she realized she had not yet told him her name. “Mr. Torrington, how do you do. I am Charlotte Sinclair of Pembroke.” She held out her gloved hand, and he bent forward to shake it, for she was still seated with her feet up.
“Yes. My eldest brother is the duke.”
His eyebrows lifted. “You don’t say. In that case, I am deeply honored to have been of assistance to you, Lady Charlotte.”
Their eyes locked and held, and she felt a shock of awareness at the thrill of his touch. He had not yet let go of her hand, and she was astonished by the fact that he did not crush it—for she knew the size and strength of those brawny fists.
But there was something else, too, that she noticed—a curious and devilishly charming flicker of light in his eyes that sent a hot and rather explosive spark of attraction into her core.
Just then, the housekeeper entered the room, and Charlotte was forced to let go of his hand. He moved away rather quickly and said, “My lady, allow me to present Mrs. March. This is Lady Charlotte Sinclair of Pembroke Palace, and she has hit her head. Will you take a look at her?”
“I would be pleased to do so, sir,” the housekeeper replied, and pulled a chair up to sit alongside the sofa. She set her bowl of water and cloths on the floor. “Now tell me, where does it hurt?” she asked.
Charlotte indicated the spot over and behind her ear.
“Ah yes, you did some damage, I see. Did you lose consciousness?”
“I don’t believe so, though I did feel very faint.”
“Can you wiggle your feet for me?” Mrs. March asked while she examined the wound.
Charlotte wiggled her feet.
“What about double vision? Or numbness or tingling in your hands or feet?”
“No, nothing like that,” Charlotte replied.
“Very good. Now let me see your pupils. Turn your face toward the light?” Charlotte did as she was told, and the housekeeper examined her eyes. Turning toward Mr. Torrington, who had moved to the other side of the parlor, she said, “She appears to be perfectly fine, sir. I’ll just clean the wound now. It doesn’t look like she needs stitches.”
“That is excellent news,” he replied. “Now, if you will both excuse me.”
He left the room—no doubt to check on the thief who had been brought in through the servant’s entrance downstairs—and Charlotte was left alone with the housekeeper. “Are you a nurse?” she asked. “You seem quite knowledgeable.”
“I have some experience with head wounds, my lady. I know when it’s serious enough to call the doctor.”
“Where did you gain such useful experience?” she asked.
The housekeeper glanced down at her very briefly while she continued to clean Charlotte’s wound. “That’s not for me to say, my lady. You’ll have to ask Mr. Torrington about that.”
“I do beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to pry.”
Nothing more was said after that. Charlotte sat quietly and patiently while Mrs. March finished cleaning her wound. Only then did she realize that her coachman was probably very concerned, for she had been gone far longer than fifteen minutes.
When the housekeeper finished her duty, she collected up the bowl of water with bloody washcloth, and returned the chair to its original position by the wall.
“I am grateful for your assistance,” Charlotte said, “but I really must be on my way. My driver is probably beside himself with worry. I only meant to take a short walk.”
“Is he nearby?” Mrs. March asked, crossing to the window to look out.
“He is waiting for me on Park Lane.”
“Then you must wait for Mr. Torrington to escort you. Please do not get up too quickly, my lady, or you may feel faint again. I will go and fetch him.”
“Thank you.” Charlotte waited in the empty parlor while the clock ticked steadily on the mantel and her head throbbed.
When at last Mr. Torrington appeared in the doorway, she did exactly what Mrs. March warned her not to do, and stood up quickly. The room spun in circles before her eyes, but somehow she managed to maintain her balance.
“I was told you wish to be on your way,” said in that husky voice that slid over her like velvet.
“Yes, if you don’t mind. I am sure my driver is quite worried.”
“Of course.” He strode to her, offered his arm, and she took it. A moment later, they were strolling out the door and descending the steps.
“The constable may wish to speak with you,” Mr. Torrington said. “May I have permission to tell him your name and where you live?”
“Absolutely,” she replied. “I will be at Pembroke House in Mayfair. He may come by today if he wishes, as I intend to go straight home.”
They walked along the sunbathed street while Charlotte’s heels clicked sharply across the pavement. She was very aware of Mr. Torrington’s muscled arm beneath her hand and his breath-taking masculine presence beside her.
It had not been a good day. In fact, it had been one of the worst days in recent memory, yet her body was sizzling with excitement. She hadn’t felt this alive in years and knew the reason for it. It was more than the attack and the bump on the head. It was Mr. Torrington. She had never met anyone quite like him and she found herself wondering what it would be like to be held in his arms, to be kissed passionately by him in the dark, to lie naked with him on a hot summer night under the stars. Would he be gentle with a woman, or would he be rough?
Heaven help her, it had been a lifetime since she’d known true passion, and lately she felt as if her body was going to burst into flames if she did not enjoy the erotic pleasure of a man’s touch before she grew too old to want it. She was a spinster. It was not likely she would ever marry, but why couldn’t she take a lover? And why couldn’t it be this man? For he excited her. No one had excited her like this since Graham.
They reached the corner. Charlotte spotted her coach and driver still waiting at the curb not far from Dr. Thomas’s office. She stopped and turned to face Mr. Torrington. “I cannot thank you enough,” she said, “for your gallant rescue today, and for retrieving my reticule. Please thank Mrs. March for her kind attention.”
“I will,” he replied.
“My coach is just there, so I shall walk the rest of the way on my own. But before I go, I wish to say something, and I suspect it may shock you.”
“Yes?” He inclined his head slightly.
She hesitated. “I would like to see you again, Mr. Torrington. In private.”
Had she really said it? Yes, she had.
His silvery blue gaze dipped lower to her mouth, then slowly, knowingly lifted back up to her eyes. “For what purpose, Lady Charlotte?”
He was a man of few words, but there was something about him that required very few of them. Something sultry and seductive. Physically powerful.
“You mentioned you were unmarried,” she boldly said. “I, too, am unattached. You are here for the Season. So am I. Perhaps we could…become better acquainted.”
The corner of his mouth curled up in a small grin that made her knees go all buttery-soft. “Do you wish to thank me again?” he asked.
“Yes, I do.”
She never imagined she would speak so scandalously to a man, but this one was not like other London gentlemen. He had been living in America for the past twelve years. Doing what…she had no idea. And he would be returning there soon. He was also rather rough and unrefined. He was not a member of her social circle, yet he was the nephew of an earl.
If she was ever going to take a secret lover, was he not an excellent choice? If things did not work out, he would soon be gone, but most importantly, he excited her. He was like some sort of battle-roughened Roman gladiator in city clothes. He could be the perfect fantasy.
“Then I am at your service, my lady,” he replied with a small bow.
Charlotte squeezed her reticule in her hands, for she wasn’t entirely sure how this was done. “Do you walk in the park at the fashionable hour?” she asked. “Or do you attend the theatre?”
“I do neither of those things,” he replied, not making this easy on her at all.
“Why ever not?”
He squinted toward the park as he answered. “Because I intend to remain on the fringes of Society while I am in Town.”
Even more perfect, she thought. But also odd. “May I ask why?”
His eyes met hers again, and there was a hint of a smile in them—a flicker of playful flirtation and encouragement. “I wouldn’t venture to bore you with it, Lady Charlotte. It’s rather tedious,” he explained.
“I see." He did not want to share the story of his life with her, but he did not wish to reject her either, and she understood why, for she could feel the attraction sparking between them in the scorching heat of the afternoon. Her body began to perspire, and she felt a rather pleasant ache in the pit of her belly and deep between her thighs—just from looking at him.
This is Charlotte and Drake’s story, which brings the Pembroke Palace series to a happy conclusion at the end of the Victorian era.
Please let me know if you enjoyed the series and would like to see it continue. I was sorry to say good-bye to these characters with whom I spent so much time, and would enjoy venturing into the Edwardian era to revisit the next generation, if that interests you.
Either leave a comment below, or feel free to contact me privately (contact button is at the top of the site).