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Damien Tremayne, earl of Deverell, has sworn he'll find—and avenge—his brother's murderer. Never does he plan on falling in love with the fiend's daughter. Heather Duval knows Damien harbors a secret, a secret that could destroy her life—and their love—forever.

 

 

Every Wish Fulfilled

Re-released with a new cover
(See the original cover)

October 2005 · Avon Books

ISBN 0-380-78607-9

Every Wish FulfilledHeroine Heather Duval first appears as a child in my novella Scandal's Bride, part of the anthology MARRIED AT MIDNIGHT. (Book page coming soon to this site!) Heather is the orphaned ward of Miles Grayson, Earl of Stonehurst and hero of comes on-stage at the very end of the story, but she had a big influence on me as I put the finishing touches on Scandal's Bride. I didn't intend to write a spin-off, but when I was done, I couldn't get this sweet, lonely little girl out of my mind. Even when she was very young, Heather had resigned herself to the fact that she would never marry—that no man would want her because she is lame.

Now, I knew this little girl deserved her own happy ending , so I pitched the idea of a spin-off to my editor, who liked the idea of Heather, who is not your standard romance heroine, having her own book.

Since then, I've heard from many readers who wrote to say how they loved this imperfect heroine who walks with a limp and the aid of a cane.

There are lies and deception aplenty, hence my original title MASQUERADE. My editor came up with the title EVERY WISH FULFILLED.

EVERY WISH FULFILLED is the second installment in a two-book mini-series which began in the anthology MARRIED AT MIDNIGHT.

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Winner of the Romantic Times award for Best British Isles Historical Romance.

Every Wish FulfilledThe original cover from January 1997

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Every Wish Fulfilled

PROLOGUE

The Outskirts of London, 1815, Hawksgrove Inn

Little by little the haze of twilight seeped between the shutters. The gloom of darkness floated into the room ... along with the twisting specter of death.

A man lay feeble and spent within the inn's finest bed--Charles Tremayne, Earl of Deverell, his long, noble fingers curled around the silk counterpane. Once Charles Tremayne had been hearty and robust, the stoutest of men. But infection had ravaged his lungs; his illness had stolen his strength, weakened his muscles to mush, leaving but a remnant of all he'd been before. And now what breath remained in his body rattled like that of a sickly old man.

From the corner, a hovering figure surveyed the Earl of Deverell. James Elliot watched with impassive indifference, his legs stretched out before him, arms across a beefy chest. A restless impatience dwelled deep in his eyes; his mouth thinned. Die, he willed venomously of the earl. Hurry and die, man. He was sorely tempted to snatch up a pillow, smother the wretch and put him out of his misery, for he was anxious to get home to his supper--not that a surfeit of comfort awaited him in that sliver of a cottage he called home. But at least he was his own man. Master of his house and all he surveyed.

And he gave the orders there.

Across from him, Charles Tremayne raised his head. "James," came his raspy whisper. "You have been good to me, James."

Good to him? James Elliot scoffed. He'd done what he'd been told to do--take care of the man during his illness. He'd dribbled gruel into the earl's mouth and mopped his chin. He'd fetched and emptied smelly chamber pots countless times over the last fortnight. Indeed, James thought blackly, Henry Foster, the innkeeper, would have his hide--and his job--if he hadn't done what he was told.

For an instant sheer malice flamed in James Elliot's eyes. Lord, but he'd like to kick Foster's fat, waddling arse down the nearest stairway.

But he bore the burden of a wife, and--more the pity--a daughter.

His daughter. His mouth flattened as he thought of her. Sniveling little nuisance. 'Twas because of her he'd lost his left thumb--and 'twas a moment forever burned into his memory.

He'd been on his knees chopping kindling in the fall of last year; the brat had come up beside him and pushed at his arm. That was all it had taken ... A howl of rage and pain erupted from his mouth. He'd seized a stump of wood and whirled on her. The little bitch! She had maimed him ...

And now she was maimed, too, he thought with satisfaction.

"James. Come closer, James."

Elliot clamped back a vehement refusal. Instead he arose and did as he was bade.

"The date, James. What is the date?"

"The eleventh of March, my lord."

Charles Tremayne rolled his head on the pillow. "I've been here nearly a fortnight. I was to have returned home by mid-month." A wispy sigh escaped lips that were dried and cracked. "The physician was right. I should have sent for my wife, my Sylvia. But I thought this stubborn infection would pass, that I would soon be well and on my way home to my family in Yorkshire. Never did I dream it would worsen so quickly... I was too stubborn, for never again will I see my boys, Giles and Damien. Never again will I hold my sweet wife in my arms." His eyes filled with tears. "I see it now, now that it is too late ... "

James Elliot rolled his eyes and sneered. How long must he be subjected to the prattling of this dratted man?

The earl coughed, a shivering, wracking sound that seemed to encompass his whole body. Long moments passed before he was able to speak again.

"You have taken good care of me, James. My Sylvia will reward you for your efforts, I promise. But now I must ask more favors of you, for I have no one else to turn to, no one but you." The earl raised a trembling hand toward the bureau. "There alongside the bureau, James. There is a cloth sack. Look inside, and in it you will find a jewel case."

Elliot swiveled his head to his left. With narrowed eyes he peered through the shadows. There was indeed a small cloth sack tipped against the side of the bureau. He did as the earl bade him, withdrawing a long silver case.

"This is it? This is the jewel case?"

"Yes, that's it, James." The earl's voice thinned. "James, I shall never see the dawn of another day. But I must ask you to take the jewel case to my wife Sylvia in Yorkshire. The coin within will pay for your journey, though I regret it will take some days. I beg of you, please do this for me, for hidden within the case is my legacy to my wife, a treasure I pray she will find beyond price ... She will know how to find it, for she alone knows the secret ..."

Those were the Earl of Deverell's last words.

The man in the bed was forgotten. For a never-ending moment James stared at the silver jewel case, his mind buzzing.

With a reverent fingertip he traced the scrolled silver edging upon the lid of the case, yet his expression could only be called greedy. There was a word engraved into a small oval in the center of the lid; having never learned to read, it meant little to him.

His cruel lips pulled into a wolfish smile. He erupted into laughter, a cackling sound that--had another been present--might have raised the very hackles of their spine.

"'Tis so easy," he said between bursts of mirth. "So bloody easy ... "

He felt no pity for the man who had just died, nor his widow nor family. No shame for what he was about to do.

For James Elliot was a man without pity. A man without shame.

A man without scruples.

An hour later he burst into a tiny cottage that squatted alongside a rutted, muddy lane. His wife Justine glanced up from where she sat before the warmth of a meager fire. She rose, tugging a dirty shawl around her shoulders.

"What kept you?" she snapped. "Your supper is fair burned and no doubt you'll blame me. Well, 'tis your own fault if you go hungry this night, James Elliot, for I'll be damned if I'll trouble myself further!"

Elliot's feral smile displayed a row of uneven, yellow teeth. "Supper be damned," he said baldly. In his hands he held a cloth sack; now he raised it high. "We'll be feasting by the end of tomorrow, or my name is not James Elliot."

Justine had squared her hands against her hips and braced herself as if for battle, as if she expected such from her husband. At his words, she looked him up and down, as if her ears had deceived her. Her eyes narrowed.

"What is this?" she asked snidely. "Feasting on the pittance you make? Or have you been out hunting instead of working, James Elliot?"

In answer he pulled out the silver jewel case, holding it up triumphantly.

Justine's expression changed abruptly as he sat it upon a crooked-legged table. A small, black-haired child had toddled up as well, next to her father's leg. Curiously she stretched out a tiny finger toward the smooth metal.

Her father whirled on her. "Don't touch that, brat!" he snarled. With the back of his hand, he dealt her a blow across her cheek that sent her tumbling to the floor. Her lips trembled, but she made not a sound.

Elliot glared at his daughter. Loathsome little bitch! he thought furiously. God, but he wished the brat had never been born!

Every Wish FulfilledJustine paid little heed. "Find your bed," she ordered brusquely, "and don't come out till morning."

The child crawled to a straw pallet in the corner. Shivering, she curled into a tight little ball.

Both mother and father had forgotten her. Justine nodded at the box. "That's a fine piece, indeed, James. How did you come by it?"

"You know the earl I've been tending? Let us just say that I relieved him of his belongings just a little early." Elliot grinned his satisfaction at his cleverness. "'Tis a jewel case."

Justine came alive. "A jewel case!" She scrambled to open it, only to see that in the top layer compartments were empty, and those beneath as well. She spun around in furious dismay. "Why, you lout, 'tis empty!"

Elliot clamped his jaw together. "Watch your tongue," he warned tightly.

Justine looked as if she longed to argue. She must have decided against it, for she said grudgingly, "Well, no matter. It'll fetch a good price, I suppose."

"Oh, we'll not be selling it." Elliot's tone was smug. "Not just yet anyway."

Justine's sunken eyes blazed. "And why not? 'Tis not terribly fancy--I'd have expected a jewel-encrusted box of an earl--but 'tis no doubt worth half a year's earnings at least!"

Elliot's smile vanished. "If you'd stop your whining, I'd tell you why. Here is what the earl said before he died. 'Hidden within is my legacy,'" he quoted, "'a treasure beyond price."

Justine stared first at him, then the case. "What," she said blankly. "You mean there is a treasure hidden inside?"

"I mean exactly that!"

"What do you think it is? Gold? Jewels?" She could scarcely contain her excitement.

Elliot's eyes shone. "What does it matter? 'Tis a treasure beyond price! Oh, what plans I have for that treasure!" He gloated. "We'll be rich, Justine. Just think of it. We'll be rich!"

Her eyes flew wide. "Oh," she breathed. "Oh, my."

"Oh, my, indeed." Elliot gave a guttural laugh. When his wife stretched out covetous arms toward the jewel case, her intention obvious, he grabbed her hands. "No. Time enough to find it later," he growled. He yanked her body against his. "For now I've something else in mind."

Justine obliged him, tugging his head down to hers. "Ah," she murmured. "You've not had your supper yet, have you?"

Elliot ground the bulge in his breeches against her hips. "To the devil with supper," he muttered. "I've a hunger of a different sort."

But all at once Justine stepped away. "Wait," she commanded. From a cupboard across the room, she reached far inside and retrieved a dark, dusty bottle. When it was opened, she splashed the ruby liquid into a dingy mug. Smiling, she returned to her husband and held it out.

Elliot curled his fingers around the mug, his left thumb but a stub against the dull metal. His humor was well restored. "So you've been hidin' it from me, eh? A pity, wife, for now I'll have it all for myself." He pressed wet lips against the rim of the mug and drank gustily.

Justine surveyed him lazily as he downed most of the bottle. But just before he would have drained the last dregs from the mug, she reached for it.

Two of her fingers slipped into the mug, dipping into the liquid. Parting the front of her gown, she bared naked, jutting breasts. Her eyes never leaving his burning gaze, she swirled the tips of her fingers around and around huge brown nipples, leaving them dark and wet with wine.

A seductive smile curved her lips. "Your supper, James," she purred.

Elliot bared his teeth. A coarse oath escaped. His hand fumbled with his breeches. He released his manhood into his hand even as he reached for his wife.

In seconds she lay flattened beneath him on their lumpy mattress. His mouth ravaged hers fiercely. With a grunt he plunged savagely into her body.

The air was filled with noisy snores when Justine eased herself from beneath his weight. Naked, she walked toward the silver jewel case. She spared nary a glance toward her child sleeping in the corner, her thin cheeks streaked with tears.

She rubbed a hand across the smooth metal. So James had plans for his newfound treasure, did he?

A sly smile crept across her lips. Ah, but so did she.

By morning she was gone, the jewel case--and the little girl--along with her.

James Elliot fell into a rage that lasted days. In his cups one night, he destroyed the inside of a tavern and killed two men who tried to stop him.

Little wonder he was sentenced to twenty years in Newgate.

As for Justine, poor soul, she did not live beyond a fortnight. So it was that the poor little mite who was their daughter was left with neither father nor mother.

Many would have said 'twas a blessing indeed.

But alas, in time ... in time destiny would twine their fates together anew ...

Father and daughter had not seen the last of each other.

../images/global/covers/wish/wish_new_125.jpgChapter 1

Lancashire, Twenty Years Later

He wished he could say it was good to be back in England.

Nearly four years had passed since his last visit. Of course he'd expected to return. Indeed, he'd been on his way back ...

Never in his life had he expected to find his brother dead.

His wrath rose within him like a cloud of blackest rage. The very curses of hell swirled within him, fighting to be free. No, he thought. Not just dead ...

Murdered.

High atop a glossy black steed, Damien Lewis Tremayne moved not a muscle. 'Twas as if both man and steed were carved in stone. Yet even as a wracking pain squeezed his heart, he was bled with a weary despair. He stared across the distant valley, but one thought crowding his mind ... his very being.

He was the last of the Tremaynes.

First his father, he thought bitterly, gone those many years ago. His mother had followed but a few short years thereafter. And now Giles ...

His heart squeezed. It was a vibrant spring morning--warm for the month of April--rich with the colors of life. The sky was a vivid, endless expanse of blue. Across the meadow, masses of buttercup yellow daffodils crowned the slope, like a sea of golden sunshine. The air was sweet with the scent of country air and morning dew ... But if the cold of winter ran in his veins, the darkest shadows of night dwelled in his expression. And it was the blazing winds of a tempest that fired his soul.

It was to him--to Damien Lewis Tremayne--that the responsibility fell ... no, not as the new Earl of Deverell--but as the brother of a man who died violently, for no reason, at the hands of another...

He would find his brother's murderer.

And he would see Giles' death avenged, for he must not fail.

He would not fail.

It was as that very resolve crossed his mind that at last he turned his mount to ride away. 'Twas then that he saw her--a woman watching him from beneath the shade of a gnarled oak tree. She was seated upon a coverlet spread upon the ground, her legs tucked beneath her skirts. In one arm a large sketch pad lay propped; in her hand was a piece of charcoal.

Their eyes caught. As she realized she'd been discovered, her hand stilled. She hugged the pad to her breast, somewhat guiltily, he decided.

Damien approached. He stopped within several paces of her, then dismounted and crossed to her. The girl remained where she was, the slender column of her neck arching as she watched him come to a halt. Her wide, unwavering regard made him feel as if he were the very devil himself come to life. Why he should cause such a reaction, he didn't know. Though he was well aware he was taller than many a man, he was garbed in a loose, white shirt, dark breeches and boots--surely such a picture as he presented should not frighten the chit.

"Hello," he murmured.

Her lips parted. For an instant he thought she would refuse to speak. But speak she did, in a low, musical voice that made him realize she was not frightened at all, perhaps merely wary.

"Good morning, sir."

One corner of his mouth tipped upward. He sought to further put her at ease. "I couldn't help but notice you watching me. Were you sketching me?"

There was just the slightest hesitation before she replied. "Yes. Yes, I was. I do hope you don't mind."

"Not at all," he returned smoothly. He dropped down to his haunches. "May I see?"

She hesitated, her distress obvious--her reticence even more so--but finally she relinquished the drawing.

Damien studied it. Though it was not yet finished, with bold, stark lines she had managed to capture every facet of his dark mood--his rage, his utter bleakness.

He disliked it. He disliked it intensely.

Slowly his gaze returned to her. "I should very much like to have it." He wasted no time conveying his wishes.

"Oh, but such a hastily done piece is hardly worth keeping." With a shake of her head, she objected just as staunchly. "I should be embarrassed to part with such a mediocre effort."

He remained pleasant, but adamant. "On the contrary, miss. It's really quite good, and I wish to have it. The price is of no consequence."

"Oh, but it's not money I'm interested in, sir. 'Tis-'tis simply not for sale."

A fleeting solution buzzed through his mind. He considered keeping it, withholding it from her, for he was not a man to display his emotions for all and sundry to see; it was as if this girl had glimpsed a part of him he would far rather keep hidden. He felt--oh, as if he'd been caught in some illicit act.

Every Wish FulfilledFrom the corner of his eye he saw a small cart and pony grazing nearby. It would be simple indeed to whirl and mount his stallion, then ride off; if he were on horseback, she would never catch him.

One dark brow arched. "You're very modest," he observed.

Small white teeth caught the fullness of her lower lip. "Modest?" she repeated, her tone light. "Nay, sir, simply honest. 'Twould be robbery were you to part with money for this piece--and it not yet finished!"

Damien struggled for patience. Why was she being so stubborn? For the first time then he looked at her ... really looked at her.

Her beauty was like a blow to the belly.

She was exquisite, though in a quite unfashionable way. Her gown was rather faded and old, the laces of the bodice undone against the heat; the rounded neckline revealed smooth, unblemished skin that had acquired a light tan. Clearly she was not a London miss who never faced daylight without bonnet or parasol. Nor was her hair a riot of curls, as was the current vogue. It tumbled down her back, sleek and straight, so dark it was almost black. Her feet were bare, small, pink toes peeping out from the hem of her dress, reminding him of a gypsy.

But it was her eyes which held him spellbound, and his own narrowed in unguarded appreciation. In all his days he'd never seen eyes the color of these. They were extraordinary, their hue of deepest violet-blue.

The color of heather in full, vibrant bloom ...

Who was she? he wondered. A girl from the village? And where had she learned to sketch so well? A natural talent? Surely it was so, he mused. But she was well spoken. Perhaps she was a maid at Lockhaven Park, whose owner he was to visit that very afternoon. At the thought, something knotted within him. He was not looking forward to his meeting with Miss Heather Duval, mistress of Lockhaven. He had a very good idea what he would encounter--a shrewish, calculating virago whose looks would undoubtedly match her disposition. No wonder the chit had yet to find a husband.

Ruthlessly he pushed the thought aside. He would much rather not think about Heather Duval. Indeed, what he wanted was to take this vision of loveliness back to his room at the inn and make love to her until the very instant he had to leave.

Ah, yes, he thought, feeling desire stir his loins and tighten his middle. If this lass were willing, he would strip away every last stitch of clothing from her, bury his heartache--and his hardness--in the depths of her body. Indeed, he could think of no better way to banish the darkness from his heart.

"Do you have a name, lass?"

Again that hesitation, as she surveyed him from beneath the cast of long, thick lashes. "Alice," she murmured at last. "Well, Alice, are you certain I cannot convince you to part with it?" In truth, the sketch no longer mattered. Oddly, he found himself reluctant to leave. He even wished she would invite him to stay and sit with her.

A hint of rose had come to her cheeks. "I think not, sir," she said softly.

"Then it seems I have no choice."

He returned it to her, dimly speculating that she would be small in stature, for her shoulders were narrow, her waist slim, her hands scarcely larger than a child's. He wished she would rise, for he had a sudden urge to see her move. She would be all lithe, perfect grace as she walked--and he could almost feel her beneath him in passion's dance, her limbs slim and curved and wildly erotic.

As if to tempt him further, a sudden breeze arose, molding her gown to her body, revealing the thrust of firm, young breasts.

Her color deepened as she discerned his gaze on her bosom. Her free hand fluttered upward as she sought to shield herself from his perusal.

"Come now, Alice. There's no need to hide such loveliness."

She was clearly distressed, though for the life of him, Damien could not imagine why. Surely he was not the first man to pay her such attention. "You, sir," she said breathlessly, "are quite forward."

And alas, he was quite regretful, for he was not a man to shower his attentions where they were not wanted.

He smiled slightly. "Perhaps," he agreed. "But I shall trouble you no further, Alice, and I shall bid you good day. 'Tis my hope we'll meet again, and perhaps you will let me make amends."

He rose, and with a low bow, he left her. It was but a short ride back to the Eppingstone Inn, where he'd taken lodgings. Built of brick and timber and stone a hundred years earlier, the inn was a resting place for travelers, a gathering place for villagers who sought respite from their drudgery in the idle hours of the evening. Wide, rough-hewn planks covered the floors, pitted and gouged and showing the signs of many a guest and many a year. The smell of ale lingered in the air, even in morning's earliest hours, yet it was not unpleasant, for it mingled with the scent of meats roasting in the kitchen.

A fire blazed in the huge stone fireplace in the common room; the trestled tables placed adjacent to its warmth were deserted as Damien strode toward his room on the second floor. He was glad, for he was suddenly in the mood to talk to no one. Still, a peculiar restlessness plagued him throughout the next few hours.

He couldn't put her out of his mind--Alice, the girl with the violet eyes. She possessed a sweet, bewitching beauty, a beauty that lured and enticed him in a way he'd not felt for a long, long time. He was sorely tempted to leave, to go out and search until he found her ...

"Enough!" Cursing himself roundly, he vaulted off the bed and snatched up his coat. He was here for a reason--and it was not to bed a wench named Alice, comely as she was. It was time, he reminded himself blackly, to get to the business at hand.

The business of catching a murderer.

Indeed, it was this very vow which had brought him to Lancashire ... which hardened his mouth and stiffened his shoulders. His feet fell like blows as he descended the smooth, worn steps of the narrow staircase.

"Goin' out, Mr. Lewis?"

The voice came from the corner of the common room. Damien glanced up and saw the innkeeper, Mr. Simpson, polishing silver at one of the tables. He tipped his hat to the portly bewhiskered gentleman, leashing his impatience.

"Indeed, I am, Mr. Simpson. I am meeting Miss Heather Duval at Lockhaven Park this afternoon to speak with her about filling the position of estate manager."

"Ah, yes. Robin passed on quite suddenly, y'know."

A pity, that--but also a stroke of luck. It was Cameron, the investigator Damien had hired to help him find Giles' murderer, who had learned the Lockhaven estate manager had passed away, and Heather Duval was anxious to find a replacement. Damien had seized on the opportunity as heavensent and dispatched a note to her immediately. Should he secure the position, he would have the perfect opportunity to quietly observe Miss Heather Duval ... and thus await his quarry.

He tipped his head slightly. "So I'm told," he murmured. "A pity, his death, but I confess, I'm eager to stay on in Lancashire."

Mr. Simpson's head bobbed up and down. "The Lord's pocket, m'wife calls it." He laid down a serving fork. "You'll find no better woman than Miss Heather. She's fair and always does well by her people. Why, a veritable saint, m'wife calls her. But that's little wonder, considering she was raised by the Earl and Countess of Stonehurst. The earl took her in after the carriage accident that killed her parents, y'know."

Damien nodded. Cameron had told him that was the story everyone believed--but it was not true. No, the man with the woman in the carriage was not her husband--nor the father of the girl ...

For the husband still lived, blast his rotten, dirty soul!

A fleeting shadow crossed Mr. Simpson's features. He sighed. "'Tis really such a shame ... " His voice trailed off and he shook his head.

Everything inside Damien seemed to stand at attention. He waited for Mr. Simpson to say more, but the old man did not. He caught his pocket watch in hand, and glanced at it. "Well," he said lightly, "I'd best be off. It wouldn't do to be late."

"Good luck," Mr. Simpson called after him.

Outside, he mounted Zeus, a towering black that had been Giles's favorite mount ... There was a faint catch in his heart. God, but he would give anything--anything!--if Giles were still alive ...

His mood darkened, like a black cloud across the moon. Faces flashed before him as he guided Zeus down the narrow lane that wound through the village. The glances cast his way were curious, yet not unfriendly. He passed two dark-haired woman selling baskets at a market stand; the pair were engaged in vivacious discussion, interspersed with laughter.

He envied them their carefreeness.

Outside the milliner's cottage, two young boys wrestled in the dirt, rolling wildly. Damien couldn't help but remember how he and Giles had often indulged in such play, rough and tumbling and reckless. As children, they had been nearly inseparable, for scarcely more than a year separated them in age. They had shared the same bed chamber. Bedeviled their tutor and plotted antics far into the night. Whispered of grand, future plans when at last they left their youth behind.

The glimmer of a smile curved Damien's lips, even as a pang shot through him. Giles had often boasted how he would someday be the illustrious captain of a vast seagoing vessel with a crew of a hundred men, charting his course across the seas and making a name for himself in the far-reaching ports of the world. As for himself, he had been no less daring and grandiose. He had dreamed of acquiring fame and fortune, of building an empire of land and wealth the likes of which no man had ever seen...

But they were the dreams of children, for nothing had turned out as planned ... Both father and mother had died, and their care was given over to their mother's sister Gertrude; it was under Aunt Gertrude's guidance that he and Giles had grown to manhood. So it was that with their father's death, Giles's dreams had ended, for he was the new Earl of Deverell. Instead he--Damien--was the one who had sailed the seas while Giles went off to Cambridge; he had traveled to America and left the business of the earldom in the hands of his elder brother Giles.

His mouth a grim, straight line, Damien spurred his mount onward. He ducked beneath the low-slung branch of an oak tree, then veered around the bottom of a grassy knoll. His jaw was clenched tight, as if to do battle. Indeed, he had to remind himself his battle was not with Miss Heather Duval ...

She was but the means to her father.

It was then that Lockhaven Park came into view. Without realizing it, Damien reined in his mount and came to a halt. As he'd been when he'd first seen it, he couldn't help but admire such an impressive sight. Towering, stately trees paved the lane that swept in a wide half-circle toward the manor house. Green verdant lawn surrounded the house in every direction. With a red brick facade and gleaming white portico, the house itself was simple yet aristocratic. Indeed, he reflected almost reluctantly, Lockhaven reminded him more than a little of Bayberry, his home in Virginia.

With a touch of his heel, once again he urged Zeus forward. Within a few short minutes, he stood before the huge double doors. An ornately carved brass knocker in hand, he rapped sharply on the paneled facade.

The sound of footsteps echoed within. A stoop-shouldered butler opened the door wide; there was an air of shabby capability about him as he fixed inquiring eyes upon the visitor.

"May I help you, sir?"

"You may indeed." Damien's tone was brisk. "I am Damien Lewis. I have an appointment to see Miss Heather Duval."

"Ah, yes, Mr. Lewis." The butler's gaze swept the length of him as he spoke. He must have passed muster, for the butler's lined face relaxed into a warm smile. "Miss Heather is expecting you. Please, come in."

Damien stepped into the foyer. The butler closed the portal, then gestured down a long corridor. "I am Marcus, by the way. Please, follow me. Miss Heather is in her study."

Every Wish FulfilledDamien fell into step beside him, slowing his stride to match that of the elderly man beside him. They passed the drawing room and the music room; he caught a glimpse of glossy floors, tall paneled walls lined with windows, awash with sunlight and filled with soft, inviting divans and chairs. Some strange emotion seized hold of him, something that bordered on anger, for he was reminded once again of Bayberry--yet he didn't want to like anything whatsoever about Lockhaven Park. Not the grounds. Not the furnishings. Most certainly not its mistress ...

"Here we are, sir," Marcus said cheerfully. He opened the last door on the right and stood aside so Damien could pass through. "Perhaps we'll be seeing you again soon."

Damien caught his eyes. "One can only hope," he murmured. Smiling slightly, he moved past the old man into the study. Marcus gave him a wink, then withdrew. As the door closed behind him, Damien raised his head. His every nerve coiled tight within him as he prepared to confront Miss Heather Duval, daughter of his brother's murderer ...

But it was a painting on the wall that captured his attention. It was dark and ominous--a hunchback stood upon a hilltop. Above his head, across the bleak horizon, he was surrounded by masses of black, seething clouds.

The hunchback had no face.

"Mr. Lewis?"

His gaze veered. His mind registered a massive mahogany desk that dominated the far corner. A diminutive figure was seated behind it, her hands folded just so before her.

He reeled.

It was her. His gypsy from this morning. There could be no mistake. Her worn faded dress had been exchanged for one of crisp gray muslin; she'd caught her hair up in a prim little bun atop her crown. Oh, she looked older, to be sure. But those exquisitely sculpted features were the same. And those huge violet eyes gazed mutely into his.

He allowed the merest trace of a smile to curl his lips, for he must reveal no hint of the turmoil that roiled within him.

"So, Alice," he murmured, "we meet again."

She didn't return his smile. "So we do," she observed, "a meeting I suspect neither of us expected." Her voice was quiet and calm, yet her regard had once again turned wary.

He gave a slight shrug. "You may well be right."

He watched as she gestured across from her. "Please," she said, her tone coolly formal, "sit down."

So. This is how it would be. Damien's manner grew chill.

He battled an acid hatred. She should have been ugly. Grotesque. God, but he wished she were! After all, she carried the same blood as a murderer. Stop it, reproved a voice in his head. You judge too harshly and too soon.

His stride unfaltering, he crossed the room. "Forgive me," he said. "I am not only rude, I've been remiss." He now stood before her. "I am Damien Lewis."

Boldly he reached for her hand; his own, deeply bronzed and much larger, seemed to swallow hers up. As he released her fingers, he saw her looking down at his hands. He was suddenly very glad his palm was calloused and rough, for he often worked alongside his own men in the fields. If the lady believed he were a city dandy, the game might well have been lost before it was even begun.

He seated himself in a burgundy leather wing chair directly across from her; there was a wooden cane propped against the side of her desk, with a handle of beaten, engraved silver. In some far distant corner of his mind, he registered the feeling that it seemed a bit out of place ...

He crossed his booted feet at the ankles and slanted her an easy smile. "I confess, this is a bit awkward. Will your husband be joining us?"

"I have no husband, sir. You see before you the sole mistress of Lockhaven Park."

If he'd hoped to discomfit her, he failed abominably, for her reply was swift, her manner as unruffled as his own. What devil had seized hold of him, Damien couldn't say, for he already knew what her answer would be even before she spoke. The lady had no husband. Indeed, he knew quite a lot about Miss Heather Duval--that she'd been raised under the wardship of Miles Grayson, Earl of Stonehurst, who lived not five kilometers distant. He didn't know why--perhaps because her father had spent the last twenty years in Newgate.

But now it was she who regarded him with keen aplomb. "I trust this poses no problem for you, Mr. Lewis? I know there are some who might consider it an affront to be in the employ of a woman. So I will understand if you wish to discontinue the interview--"

"On the contrary, Miss Duval. Please, let us proceed." There was a glint in his eye; he had the feeling that was what she wanted.

Slim, supple fingers seemed to tense, then visibly relax. Yet her words were the complete antithesis of what he expected. "Then let us get down to business," she said softly. She reached for a small sheaf of papers on the corner of the desktop. "I must admit, Mr. Lewis, I was quite impressed with the letter you sent. It seems you have a good deal of experience to commend you."

His tobacco holdings in Virginia had prospered greatly over the last ten years; ego notwithstanding, Damien liked to think it was because he involved himself in every aspect of the business.    "At the risk of sounding rather arrogant, Miss Duval, I believe I do."

She contemplated him, her head tipped to the side. A faint frown flashed across her features. "Your accent," she murmured. "'Tis rather unfamiliar."

He chuckled, striving to be at his most charming. "No doubt it's a bit of a mixture. You see, I was born in Yorkshire and spent most of my youth there." Notably absent was the fact that he'd been born the second son of an earl. He must tread carefully, lest his true identity be revealed. Oh, no, he was not about to disclose who he really was, for he could trust no one ...

Especially not her.

"When I was sixteen," he went on, "I decided to go in search of fame and fortune, and landed in America."

"Sixteen!" She was clearly aghast. "But that's so young to be on your own! Surely someone traveled with you?"

Every Wish FulfilledHe shook his head. "No," he said lightly. "But I was big for a lad and pretended to know quite well the ways of the world. I settled in Virginia and went to work for a plantation owner. Eventually I came to be in charge of the daily operations there." A roundabout way of putting it, but true nonetheless.

"I see." Her gaze was fixed on his face. He could almost see her mind working, gauging him, weighing and measuring. "Could you describe your duties in more detail?"

"Certainly, Miss Duval. I was the sole keeper of the books and I was responsible for supervising the planting and harvest of the plantation's chief crop--tobacco. I bought and ordered supplies, and saw to the housing and welfare of those who worked in the fields."

She nodded. "I'm curious, however, Mr. Lewis. What brought you back to England?"

He gestured vaguely, pretending to ponder. "Despite the years I spent in America, this is home," he said at last. "It doesn't matter whether it's Lancashire or Yorkshire. I returned for a visit and ... 'twas a precipitous decision, I admit. Thus I fear I carry no letters of recommendation with me." He held his breath and waited.

She nodded, yet he sensed her hesitancy. "I must be honest, Mr. Lewis," she said slowly. "I need a man who is not an ogre, for I will not have an estate manager whom my tenants fear. At the same time, I require someone who is able to perform his duties with a firm, capable hand. Thus far I've had precious little luck finding a suitable replacement for Robin, and time grows short. But we are not growing tobacco here in Lancashire, Mr. Lewis. We raise sheep and cattle, and grow what crops are needed to sustain the estate and its tenants."

"I am hardly ignorant of such matters," he said quickly. "My aunt's farm in Yorkshire is very similar to your estate, and it was there I spent much of my youth."

She gave a tiny shake of her head. "'Tis not that I doubt your ability--"

"Then I have an offer, Miss Duval. If you will engage me as your estate manager, I shall work without wages for the first month." He was driven by desperate purpose, but he dare not let her know it. "Should you be dissatisfied with me, or should my work prove inadequate in any way, you may dismiss me at the end of that time. With all respect, Miss Duval, it would seem to me you have nothing to lose."

She was tempted; hope flared within him, yet he didn't dare risk pushing her further. With naught but the hold of his eyes, he sought to convince her. Time stretched out endlessly. But just when he thought his plan futile, she rose to her feet behind the desk. For the first time, that lovely mouth softened in a faint smile.

Damien felt he'd been punched in the belly. He'd thought her lovely before, but God above, now she stole the very breath from his lungs

"You are a persuasive man, Mr. Lewis. I agree to your proposal--but on one condition. I will not cheat you by withholding wages for services given me. In addition to your salary" --she named a figure that was more than generous-- "the estate manager is entitled to the use of the house near the east pasture. 'Tis a modest dwelling, but I hope you'll find it adequate. Is this agreeable to you, sir?"

Damien stood as well. "It is indeed, Miss Duval."

"Good," she pronounced. "When would you like to move your things?"

"Tomorrow would be fine, Miss Duval. I can begin after that."

"Excellent, then. If you'll meet me at the stable at ten o'clock, I should like to show you the estate."

"I shall look forward to it." He reached around to retrieve his hat. When he glanced back, he saw that she was still standing. But he had the sensation there was more she wanted to say.

He arched a brow. "Was there something else, Miss Duval?"

"Yes. Yes, actually there is." For the first time since this morning, she seemed almost flustered. "Mr. Lewis, you're quite certain this is what you want? I ask because ... well, it occurs to me you may find Lancashire quite tedious. Our village is small and--"

He cut her off, yet there was no sting in his tone. "If I were in search of city life, Miss Duval, I'd have gone to London."

His gaze was unrelenting, yet those unusual violet eyes never left his. "You take my meaning well, Mr. Lewis."

A single step brought him directly across from her. Reaching out, he took her hand. It was small and dainty and feminine, and all at once he found himself torn by conflicting emotions. He fought the urge to crush her hand in his, the way her father had surely crushed his brother. Yet even as he wanted to conquer and defeat all that she was, he longed to rip the pins from her hair, to feel it tumble over his fingers, all warm, dark silk as he urged her rose-tinted mouth to his. He wanted her to come to him. He wanted to see her walk to him, her form all fluid, perfect and agile gracefulness ...

"I wish to make my home in a quiet restful place such as this, Miss Duval, so please, trouble yourself no further." His tone was soft. He brought her fingers to his lips, a fleeting touch that was over almost as soon as it was begun. "I promise you, I shall be quite satisfied here at Lockhaven, for I am just a common, hard-working man like any other."

With that, he bid her farewell and strode from the study. His plan had been set into motion.

Now all he could do was wait.

 


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